For me, Monteverdi's penultimate opera is his greatest surviving stage work. Yet David Alden's staging of Ulisse for WNO leaves a very different impression. It's a now-familiar postmodern junk-room of Freudian imagery and visual gags - Neptune as a frogman taking a bath, Minerva as apilot, Ulysses in a wheelchair. Everywhere you look there is sleaze and mild pornography, which seems to be modern directors' only response to the subcutaneous sensuality of baroque opera. From Ian MacNeil's sets to Gideon Davey's costumes, a certain vulgar inventiveness rules, like clever schoolboys playing Opera Consequences.
As always, the trouble with such an interpretation is that there is scarcely a trace of it in the music. What we do get in this wonderful score is a slow, often agonised unravelling of an emotional quest. According to Alden, Ulysses is soon off again; but Monteverdi's Ulysses isn't. The minor-key ending is much more tied up with complex emotions, and the need to avoid any sense of facile resolution.
With so much visual distraction, the music often takes a back seat. Paul Nilon's Ulysses, well enough sung, nevertheless lacks intensity and poise. Sara Fulgoni is a stately Penelope, vocally strong when the staging allows. Ed Lyon takes the prize for Telemachus's unforgettable description of Helen, the one point where Alden seems completely attuned to the music.
Sarah Tynan's Melanto and Andrew Tortise's Eurymachus (a pimp in the service of the Suitors) are both excellent, and the Suitors themselves - Iestyn Davies, Clive Bayley and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks - are as fine musically as they are foul dramatically.
Geoffrey Dolton's shepherd Eumaeus, converted horribly into a cat-home proprietor, is superb throughout, his recognition scene with Ulysses a great moment in spite of his ludicrous feline headpiece.
Rinaldo Alessandrini directs the motley band of strings and theorbos calmly through the bric-a-brac, and at the end reaches the serene spirit of the work itself.
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