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Birmingham is of course a thriving multicultural community, and this was reflected strikingly in the cast. The above roles -- Jupiter, Juno, Neptune -- plus Robert Winsdale Anderson's classy Antinous were all sung by entertaining and engaging black singers of real calibre, just as was the superb Ferryman (Rodney Clarke) in BOC's staging last summer of Britten's Curlew River. Watson's impressive Pizarro has already been alluded to. This was not just ethic add-on. These are some of the UK's finest, most involving black performers. Their casting was not just a sort of social convenience; each supplied a key part of the evening's energy and vitality.

Tenor Mark Wilde, who has already brought a personal magic to Vick's Birmingham company as Bernstein's Candide (almost as buffeted as Ulysses) and as a heart-wrenching Madwoman in Curlew River, sang the son Telemachus, occasionally revealing that lyric gift that has scored such triumphs with Bampton Classical Opera (as Salieri's Ford, for instance). Some of the most supple and lovely lyric singing came from Nicolas Watts' intoning of Pisandrus, the sinuous second suitor: the baddie as beguiler.

Angela Hickey fared well in two vignettes for the family nurse, Eryclea. And two of the most involving scenes by far were supplied by yet another tenor of stature, Andrew Forbes-Lane, singing Ulysses' taunter, Irus. Twice, this ostensibly minor role completely dominates the action: first, as he (here, archly and camply) torments the hobbling beggar, Ulysses in disguise; and near the close, after the showdown, where Monteverdi allocates Irus -- now abandoned in a virtual morgue -- a distressed epilogue as poignant as any scene in the opera. It's not the last word, of course. But as a prelude to the final love duet (which it ingeniously delays), it's dramatically quite brilliant.

What of the two principals, Odysseus/Ulysses himself, and the faithful Penelope? Her most substantial aria is curiously placed, very early in the opera. Vick seemed to aim at a deliberate unfocusing, as she skits here and there: Penelope, like her husband, acquires the aura of a 'displaced' person; yet the result -- deliberately disconcerting -- rendered the sound very hit and miss, especially without a compacter stage and with the orchestra itself spatially separated, so as occasionally to displace the ensemble as well.

Husband and wife, but not quite yet reunited in Monteverdi's drama: Paul Nilon as Ulysses and Emma Selway as Penelope seek to repair their fractured marriage
Husband and wife, but not quite yet reunited in Monteverdi's drama: Paul Nilon as Ulysses and Emma Selway as Penelope seek to repair their fractured marriage

By contrast even on his ungainly first entry, unloaded by a crane on his ravaged former kingdom, Paul Nilon's words were impeccable (much more so than his wife's). Small of stature and no natural heroic tenor, Nilon achieves a different kind of heroism, indeed almost antiheroism: a nobility of spirit that embraces his reconciliation with both Eumaeus and his son Telemachus, and which shines through his self-effacing behaviour as the beggar is taunted and assailed by the braggard/gourmand Irus, and which continues to beam forth amid his puzzlement at his wife's incapacity to recognise him late in the opera.

Above all, Nilon's voice is a touching and tender one, open-vowelled, never overstated, full of warmth and well abreast of high and low tessitura alike. He is unbelievably lucid in decorative passages, something encompassed with rather uneven skill by others in the cast.

A few of the audience may have wandered away with the feeling that too little of this gave us a pure, beguiling Monteverdi sound. Most, however, will have accepted the compromise and stylistic challenge offered by this unusual treatment of drama. All the 'extras' -- although the term is a misnomer, for they are essential to BOC productions -- were committed and involved: a few seemed more peripheral, some loosely integrated, but most were important to the action. One of their finest moments came at the start of part two: a short, almost dancelike dramatic prelude which stands out as one of the most memorable moments of an evening oozing with talent and riddled with highlights.

Copyright © 5 June 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


Roderic Dunnett was at the performance of Birmingham Opera Company's Ulysses Comes Home (Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) on Friday 29 April 2005 at Planet Ice, Birmingham, England. The production formed the climax of a two-year project exploring the work of the founding father of modern opera, during which events took place all over Birmingham (including at the new Bullring Shopping Centre and on a canal bank under a railway bridge) in 2004.

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