Opera Review: 'Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria' at Wolf Trap Barns

Monday, July 27, 2009

Almost 370 years after it was written, Monteverdi's "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" ("The Return of Ulysses") still has much to tell a modern audience.

The opera's psychological underpinnings were the focus at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday night. James Marvel's direction, Eric Allgeier's scenic design and Robert Grimes's lighting created an ever-changing production whose allegory of Fortune, Time and Love was played out through Ulysses' return to his homeland 20 years after he left for the Trojan War.

The music retains its power, too. Using a modified version of Alan Curtis's new edition of the opera, conductor Gary Thor Wedow propelled the three-hour work through its many shifting moods, from heroism to comedy, debate to action. The Wolf Trap Opera Company ensemble sound, including harpsichord, organ, theorbo, baroque guitar and viola da gamba, was authentic and finely honed.

Dominic Armstrong was a vocally strong, passionate Ulysses. Jamie Barton brought regal grandeur to steadfast Penelope, humanizing a role that risks being as dull as the unswerving virtue she represents. Chad Sloan as Telemaco and Paul Appleby as Eumete both sang and acted well, and Jamie Van Eyck was a standout as the flirtatious maid, Melanto. Among the gods, Daniel Billings was vocally impressive as Giove, and Ava Pine was a puckish and clever Minerva.

The only miscalculation was in the characterization of Penelope's suitors (David Portillo, Carlos Monzón and Matthew Hanscom), who were dressed like fugitives from disco and inappropriately played for comic effect, including one suitor with stereotypical gay mannerisms. The all-seeing eyes projected as part of the background should have noticed how that undermined what was otherwise a vibrant production.

The performance repeats Tuesday at 8 p.m.

-- Mark J. Estren

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