Three years ago the Royal Opera and the Roundhouse collaborated on a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo that set out to win new audiences and involve local communities in the staging.
Now it repeats the enterprise with John Fulljames’ clear and effective presentation of another Monteverdi work – The Return of Ulysses – sung in Christopher Cowell’s skilful English translation.
The show does more than pay lip service to notions of community engagement. Back in Venice in 1640 Monteverdi’s commercial producers could not afford a chorus, but here the piece has been harmlessly adapted to include one in a way that is integral rather than extraneous: led by postgraduates from the Guildhall School of Music, 40 singers from the local Roundhouse community and the Royal Opera’s outpost in Thurrock make their presence felt as migrants displaced by the Trojan War.
It adds a further dimension to a show in which all the principal parts, large and small, are expertly taken, and which survives the potentially disastrous vocal indisposition on the first night of Christine Rice, whose Penelope is one of the opera’s two central roles: Rice nevertheless acts her role irreproachably from a physical point of view while Caitlin Hulcup sings it from the pit in a brilliant piece of practical and artistic dovetailing.
Roderick Williams leads the show as careworn Ulysses, who summons up the strength to deal with the scurrilous suitors and Stuart Jackson’s comic-grotesque parasite Irus. Samuel Boden’s troubled Telemachus, Susan Bickley’s solid Eurycleia, Francesca Chiejina’s vibrant Melantho and Mark Milhofer’s canny Eumaeus all distinguish themselves.
Performed in the round, the production takes place on a revolving circular platform with the orchestra of the Early Opera Company in the middle. Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn superintends the music, keeping things stylish and moving steadily forwards.