A Minimalist Monteverdi Production for the 21st Century: Opera Omnia’s “The Return of Ulysses”

Last week Opera Omnia, a tiny company that is the brainchild of Baroque opera enthusiast Wesley Chinn, presented its third production in New York, Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses,” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.  I attended the final performance on Thursday, September 12.  I was particularly drawn to attend this because one of my favorite musicians, baritone Jesse Blumberg, was singing the role of Ulysses.  But I was also intrigued to see what Opera Omnia would do with this piece — which I last saw in a production by the NY City Opera back in their Lincoln Center days — considering how much I had enjoyed their prior production, Giasone, at Le Poisson Rouge.

This was definitely Monteverdi for the 21st century, performed in English and substantially cut to bring it within the presumed shorter attention span of a present-day audience.  I have to say that Monteverdi sung in English sometimes sounds very peculiar.  The syllables don’t scan very well to Monteverdi’s music, which was conceived with Italian lyrics in mind, and sometimes the result could be just a bit awkward or clunky.  On the other hand, the setting at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was not one where projected titles would work very well, and it was helpful to be able to understand what the performers were singing, especially in the heavily-cut first act where dramatic continuity was not easily achieved. (The second act seemed to hang together much better in that respect, and the momentum of the performance carried through to a triumphant conclusion.

A minimalist unit set provided the necessary framework to suggest the scenes specified in the libretto (originally by Giacomo Badoaro, but performed in a translation by Anne Ridler), and vivid costuming also contributed positively to the dramatic impression, but this was all about the music, really.  Avi Stein led an excellent small band of authentic instrument players drawn from the elite of such performers in NYC.  One has only to mention their names to a frequent early-music concertgoer to draw appreciative nods: Robert Mealy and Daniel S. Lee, violin; Ezra Seltzer, cello; Christa Patton, harp; Charles Weaver, theorbo and guitar; Hank Heijink, theorbo, Jeffrey Grossman, organ; and of course the ubiquitous Mr. Stein (he seems to pop up everywhere, and is always excellent) leading from the harpsichord.

Jesse Blumberg fulfilled all my hopes and expectations in the lead role, throwing himself physically into the part while always maintain the musical line and – wonder of wonders — articulating the English text so meticulously that it was easily understandable — not always the case with sung English.  His Penelope, Tai-Ting Chinn, was right there with him.  Indeed, the entire cast was superb, but I would give a special call-out to young Owen McIntosh as Telemachus!  Wow, truly dynamic!

Crystal Manich’s stage direction kept the action moving well, and her staging of the denouement when Ulysses slays the suitors was truly devastating.  You know there is going to be lots of exciting stage action when a production boasts a fight director (Nick Gisonde), but this one also had a magic consultant (Mark Mitton), as well as a specialist to construct the headwear (Doug James) that added so much to Muriel Stockdale’s costume designs.  As noted above, the unit set (Julia Noulin-Merat) worked very well in providing a frame for the action.

In short, this was an excellent evening of baroque opera and I hope Opera Omnia will be encouraged by this success to mount another production soon.  Even nature cooperated – a thunderstorm broke out just as the performance was beginning, perfectly timed to compliment Ulysses’ shipwreck on the shore near Ithaka!!

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