Monday, October 18, 2004

The return of Ulysses hits Oz

Claudio Monteverdi's mid-17th century opera The Return of Ulysses is one of the oldest still performed. It is also far less appealing to the eyes, ears and hearts of 21st century audiences than most of the subsequent operas that survived to join it in the modern repertoire.

The Melbourne Festival is presenting it in a condensed form which, though not always comprehensible or free of tedium, is admirable for the professionalism with which it respects a pioneering masterpiece and seeks to make it entertaining by today's standards.

The production, devised and directed by Johannesburg artist William Kentridge, is a collaboration by the South African Handspring Puppet Company, run by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones; the Belgian baroque music group Ricercar Consort, led by the viola da gamba of Philippe Pierlot; and a multinational cast of singers.

The Return of Ulysses tells of the wandering hero's return to ancient Ithaca, and his wife Penelope, and is often emotionally and physically static.

Kentridge has partly transposed the story to modern South Africa, where Ulysses has undergone heart surgery and drifts into a post-operative dream.

This seems to be a gratuitous gloss on Homer's story, and the effort to explain it with back-projected film and cartoons provides visual interest without making much sense. More successful is the use of puppets (manipulated by the singers and assistants) to emphasise the element of mythic timelessness.