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‘The Return of Ulysses’ as travestied by ENO, and honoured by Pierre Audi; and Peter Brook’s ‘A Magic Flute’

Michael Church

ENO ulysees 326 wide 255x300 The Return of Ulysses’ as travestied by ENO, and honoured by Pierre Audi; and Peter Brook’s ‘A Magic Flute’ Substituting a modest ‘a’ for the usual ‘the’, Peter Brook’s ‘Flute’ comes courtesy of seven barefoot singers, two dreadlocked actors, a pianist, simple lighting changes, and thirty bamboo poles: the flute isn’t played, but hovers magically in the air. Those who dislike this production itemise the things that aren’t there: no Three Ladies, no Three Boys, no spectacular trials. But what is there is absolutely bewitching: while the piano weaves a delicate spell from the shadows, a brilliant distillation of Mozart’s music-drama is enacted, with arias in German, spoken dialogue in French, and surtitles in English.

Brook has aimed to free the opera from the ‘systems and institutions’ which are in his view a waste of energy, and he’s stripped it down to its core. The score, meanwhile, is an unobtrusively deft reduction, with elements added from Mozart’s piano works. The cast I caught were pure-toned and dramatically convincing; Brook may have muted the melodrama, but he brings to bear the accumulated theatrical wisdom of a lifetime to create an evanescent world whose final dissolution comes like one of Prospero’s conjuring tricks. Apart from the piano, this entire show – performers and props – would fit into a people-carrier, and could be staged anywhere. This lovely ensemble production should be brought back to tour Britain’s provinces in the culture-starved months ahead.

While this show was opening at the Barbican, ENO and the Young Vic were unveiling their co-production of Monteverdi’s ‘Il ritorne d’Ulisse in patria’ in the Young Vic’s little theatre-in-the-round. But – unless it was in pursuit of that tired old mantra ‘bringing in a new audience’ – one wonders why they bothered to plant it there, as it’s essentially a big-house production: it fills half the auditorium, and demands a wide-angle vision which most seats don’t provide. Its Australian director Benedict Andrews – ‘sought-after’, says the programme, though that must refer to his work in straight theatre – has clearly decided that poor old Monteverdi must be updated, so the first sight that greets our eyes is a re-creation of the most infamous photo from Abu Ghraib, with one of Penelope’s suitors hooded and dragged like a dog on a lead, and the others taunting him. After sex games outside the usurped palace we are invited inside: it’s a black glass box containing an apartment – kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, lounge – such as you’d find in an upmarket West End showroom. On the tv is rolling news from some Middle East conflict, while a live webcam sweeps the apartment constantly, projecting the protagonists’ doings onto two giant screens either side of the stage. The suitors are got up like Reservoir Dogs; Penelope’s maid Melanto drops her knickers to entice her rough young lover Eurimaco; Ulisse’s nurse Ericlea makes an omelette and in a sudden rage throws it at the pristine glass wall, whereupon she and Melanto fall to with kitchen-rolls and Windolene and try to rub it clean… And that’s only the beginning. No point going on about the black helium balloons, and all the other tired clichés hurled at us in this crass attempt at ‘topicality’. Even in its own terms, this show is amateurish: Andrews has absolutely no idea how to direct the eye, or focus the audience’s attention.

The only good thing about Ulisse’s climactic slaying of the suitors – for which he mystifyingly resorts to a Magnum, rather the symbolic bow of which he has just demonstrated his mastery – is that the stage is mercifully depopulated: one just wishes he’d done it at the start.

Yet this is an opera, and the irony is that in musical terms we get a stunning evening. Thomas Randle’s performance in the title role is beautifully nuanced, as is Diana Montague’s as Ericlea; Pamela Helen Stephen’s Penelope has a worn grandeur; Thomas Hobbs’s Telemaco and  Katherine Manley’s Melanto are glitteringly sung, and Brian Galliford delivers a virtuoso turn as the grotesque Iro; from the pit, Jonathan Cohen conjures wonders with a small period band. How they manage to keep the musical flag flying – while complying with Andrews’s daft instructions – is a mystery. But they can’t do anything about the absurdly long and portentous pause which Andrews dictates must follow the slaughter: with typical brilliance, Monteverdi had segued straight from that into a comic number by Iro, but Andrews prefers to make us wallow in the blood.

Whereas Monteverdi’s Ulisse is a hero who despatches his enemies with symbolic grace, Andrews’s Ulisse has a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and in a sequel would be court-martialled and referred to a psychiatrist. The reviews posted so far range from uncritical praise to regretful (but very deferential) hat-doffing towards Andrews’s white-hot street-cred. It may be worth catching for the music alone, but in every other respect this is a hyperactively vulgar travesty.

Meanwhile check out the Opus Arte DVD of Pierre Audi’s 1998 production for Netherlands Opera, in which the late and much-missed Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings Ulisse, Graciela Araya sings Penelope, and Diana Montague sings Minerva. This does everything that Andrews should have done but doesn’t: there’s plenty of physical action, but when the drama demands it the camera stays still and lets us focus where we need; under Glen Wilson’s direction the music bowls as brilliantly along as Cohen’s.

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