Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff<br/>La Juive, Barbican Hall, London

A poignant homecoming
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The Independent Culture

Written in 1640, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is perhaps the most moving and perceptive study of grief, impotence and dislocation in the operatic canon. In the 33 years since L'Orfeo, Monteverdi had thrice been bereaved, had written the Lamento d'Arianna, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Hor che'l ciel e la terra, and the breadth and depth of his experience informs every note of Ulisse. In Giacomo Badoaro, he found a librettist of equal intellect: a poet who could balance the spectacle required of 17th-century Venetian theatre with complex rhetoric and an intimate psychological portrait of a middle-aged couple separated by war.

David Alden's exuberant Welsh National Opera production, designed by Ian MacNeil, is a bold and sometimes brilliant response to Badoaro and Monteverdi's extraordinary creation. Neon signs, stuffed cats, and dropped knickers litter the stage, while capricious gods and venal or misguided mortals cavort, connive, seduce, attack, lament and tap-dance their way across Ithaca. It would be easy to take exception to Neptune (Clive Bayley) in flippers and a wet suit, Minerva (Elizabeth Atherton) as Amelia Erhardt, and Jupiter (Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks) as a small-time hustler. But the gods were always contemporary fantasies, while an abandoned wife (Sara Fulgoni) and a humbled hero (Paul Nilon) are eternals.

The cartoon delinquency of Alden's deities and courtiers intensifes the seriousness of three pivotal scenes in Ulisse. The first of these, Penelope's monologue "Torna il tranquillo al mare", is an eloquent exposition of her loneliness and anger. The second, Ulisse's encounter with Telemaco (Ed Lyon), speaks as plainly of the hero's misery at missing 20 years of his son's life as it does of his joy at embracing him. The third, the closing dialogue between Ulisse and Penelope, is without equal in opera. For the first time in a drama in which every gesture has been observed or aided or obfuscated by a god, a rival, or an ally, husband and wife are alone. It's an audacious way to close a heroic opera, with no pomp, no moral, no deus ex machina. Here we are, eavesdropping on a private conversation between two people who, however dearly they might wish to relate as they did before the Trojan Wars, are irrevocably changed.

Aside from the blood-red intensity of Fulgoni's Penelope and Nilon's Ulisse, and the appealing young voices of Andrew Tortise (Eurimaco), Iestyn Davies (Human Frailty/Pisandro) and Sarah Tynan (Fortuna/Melanto), what is most impressive about this production is the faith which Welsh National Opera have placed in the specific rhetorical, rhythmic and harmonic language of a very old opera to move and provoke a modern audience. In contrast to English National Opera's unevenly delivered L'Orfeo , every singer in Ulisse has achieved stylistic fluency. Though the strings are audibly challenged by the brisk concitato sections and fleet ritornelli, harpsichordist and musical director Rinaldo Alessandrini has effected as stylish a performance as could be desired from a mix of period and modern instruments. The on-stage curtain call for the continuo section was amply deserved.

So to La Juive, given in concert at the Barbican by the orchestra, chorus and soloists of the Royal Opera House. A big hit in anticlerical 19th-century Paris, Halévy's opulent opera on 15th-century anti-Semitism boasts a plot more lurid and improbable than that of Il trovatore. Eléazar (Dennis O'Neill) is a silversmith and juif fanatique, whose sons were burned to death as heretics. His daughter Rachel (Marina Poplavskaya) is merely Jew-ish, for although she was raised by Eléazar, her real father is Count Brogni (Alastair Miles), the man responsible for the chargrilling of Eléazar's sons.

Now a cardinal, Brogni, who believes his daughter was murdered in her infancy, sentences Rachel to death in a cauldron of boiling water for inadvertantly canoodling with Léopold (Dario Schmunck) - an adulterous Christian prince who poses as Samuel, a Jewish artisan, while his wife Princess Eudoxie (Nicole Cabell) is out buying jewels from Eléazar. This being opera, Eudoxie does not recognise her royal love-rat of a husband when she interrupts the seder at which he is choking on unleavened bread. Nor does Brogni recognise his long-lost daughter, until she leaps into the pot like a suicidal lobster and Eléazar reveals her identity with a yodelled "La voilà!".

It is hard to say who suffers more in La Juive: Rachel, Brogni, Eléazar, Eudoxie, or the listener. The legion inadequacies of Eugène Scribe's libretto would be less overwhelming were they not amplified by single adjective arias of the "menacing" or "plaintive" or "vengeful" variety, a plethora of slack-jawed pizzicato chords, and an often emaciated range of instrumental colour. Despite excellent performances from Cabell, Poplavskaya, Schmunck, and the chorus, the judicious omission of the Act III ballet, and a startling study of bitterness from O'Neill, this was an event more remarkable for the orchestra's apparent contempt for conductor Daniel Oren's star-jumps than for any dramatic or musical substance.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

* Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria sua, North Wales Theatre, Llandudno (01492 872000) Tue; Birmingham Hippodrome (0870 730 1234) touring

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