A back-to-basics opera experience in the best possible way

The Return of Ulysses review: The musical equivalent of the world’s best chef using just a clutch of the finest ingredients

The Return of Ulysses 
★★★
Kilkenny Arts Festival

Monteverdi, Wagner and Berg are the great opera composers most grievously under-represented on stage in Ireland.

It's interesting that Kilkenny Arts Festival's outgoing director, Eugene Downes — an opera lover with his eye on a career in opera — engaged in a bid to bring Wagner's Parsifal to his festival, and has now successfully teamed up with Opera Collective Ireland to present the first Irish production of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, given as The Return of Ulysses in an English translation by Christopher Cowell.

There’s a sense in which a Monteverdi opera is a back-to-basics experience, but in the most positive of ways. Think of it as the musical equivalent of being fed by the world’s best chefs using just a clutch of the finest ingredients.

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Director Patrick Mason’s approach is economical and direct. Set and lighting designer Paul Keogan’s steel and sandbag set has the strings and continuo players of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin arrayed around a circular performing area.

A gangway that floats mid-air is the realm of the gods and a ladder provides immediate access to the earth below. A tall bank of lights provides anything from flashes of lightning to propeller movements for Minerva’s flying chariot.

Catherine Fay’s costumes are storybook lucid, a shepherd with a staff, a glutton who looks as if he is about to burst out of his three-piece suit, Human Frailty as a homeless man. Mason and his team have ensured that there is nothing on stage to get in the way of the narrative or the music.

Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy brings an elemental life force to the title role, as he struggles with the power of the gods, the threats of human adversaries and the initial reluctance of his wife Penelope to acknowledge that his is genuinely her long-lost husband.

Mezzo soprano Raphaela Mangan’s Penelope is more reserved, even enigmatic, sometimes uncomfortable, until the moment of recognition when she blossoms in the joy of reunion.

Also impressive in the 14-strong cast are the vocally agile Ross Scanlon as the gluttonous Iro, the always sure and centred Rory Musgrave as the shepherd Eumate, and the eager Andrew Gavin as Telemaco, with the bright interventions of Emma Morwood's Minerva functioning well at crucial turning points.

On the opening night I got the impression that the experienced hand of conductor Christian Curnyn had not yet fully imbued the singers with the niceties of Monteverdian declamation, something which, of course, is always more difficult to render persuasive in English than in the original Italian.

Kilkenny Arts Festival Friday 7pm and Sunday 3pm; Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Friday, September 7th, and Saturday, September 8th; kilkennyarts.ie