Bringing it all back home: an operatic Odyssey

Pacific Operaworks' Ulysses is rich, original and an inspiring rejection of comfort-food programming.
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John Oliver performs at The Paramount on Nov. 23

Pacific Operaworks' Ulysses is rich, original and an inspiring rejection of comfort-food programming.

Seattle has a new opera company. Pacific Operaworks is making a daring bow with its inaugural production of Claudio Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, which opened Wednesday night at the Moore Theatre.

The decision to launch their venture with a challenging version of a rarely seen work would be remarkable under any circumstances. Somehow, company founder Stephen Stubbs and colleagues have beaten the odds and steered their way through the Scylla of a disastrous economy and the Charybdis of predictable, comfort-food programming. That the result is so richly rewarding is auspicious on its own terms and an encouragement for Seattle's arts community.

Stubbs is well-known on the international circuit as an early-music performer (and lute specialist) and has also been active as a conductor, opera director, and educator. After a few decades based in Europe, he returned to his native Seattle a few years ago with an ambitious agenda. Stubbs hopes to establish Pacific Operaworks as a presenting company — to bring other major artists from around the world to collaborate with the best talents of Seattle to form a vibrant part of Seattle's cultural landscape.

Thus Ulysses draws on some local luminaries of the early-music scene to showcase the work of South African artist William Kentridge. The production originated at Brussels' La Monnaie in 1998 and has been revived several times — including in New York in 2004. This revival marks its West Coast debut. (Immediately after the Seattle run, Stubbs and company will bring the production to San Francisco, where MOMA will be the sponsor.)

Kentridge is a polymath artist from Johannesburg with strong theatrical ties. He works across a number of media in the visual arts and is especially known for his signature charcoal drawings and stop-motion animation films, which he incorporates into his theatrical work. This production will likely whet your appetite to experience more of Kentridge, which you can indulge by visiting exhibits currently under way at the Henry Art Gallery and Greg Kucera Gallery; SFMOMA has also just launched a major retrospective. Although Luc de Wit, a frequent collaborator, has staged the Pacific Operaworks revival, Kentridge himself made the trek to Seattle for the opening.

For Ulysses, Kentridge collaborated with the South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company. Their puppets — designed by Adrian Kohler and used to represent each of the opera's characters — add a breathtakingly human element to the production's dazzling multimedia mix. In fact, each of Monteverdi's characters appears as a kind of triad on stage: The corresponding singer and a Handspring puppeteer move the heavy, carved wooden puppets around. Although the puppets appear to be maybe two-thirds life size, the audience gravitates toward them as the real embodiments of the characters. Gasps could be heard when the opening visual revealed Ulysses as an aged puppet on a hospital bed whose belabored breathing and glistening eyes appeared stunningly lifelike.

Kentridge updates Monteverdi's opera, but not in the one-dimensional, one-punchline way to which some directors succumb. His vision is richly metaphorical, drawing much from the allegorical prologue and its imagery of human frailty. Giacomo Badoaro's opening scene shows fragile humanity pitted against the merciless gods and external forces. Monteverdi was a man of 73 in 1640, when he composed The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland for the Venetian public (as opposed to the aristocratic court environment of Orfeo) and, as several scholars surmise, likely identified closely with Homer's hero.

While Ulysses finds consoling constancy in the love of Penelope, art proves to be Monteverdi's mainstay as he lives through a century of tumultuous transition and innovation. But the forces lined up against the hero are formidable, despite his legendary gift for trickery. These become the focus in Kentridge's conception of the opera — now internalized into the body's vulnerability. Jove's angry thunderbolts morph into the spreading dyes of an angiogram, tracing out the threat of a heart attack. "The world which is beyond our control, and to protect which sacrifices and libations must be made," says Kentridge, "is now internal."

Hence the framing device of Ulysses as a hospital patient, dreaming or remembering the events that transpire. A constant stream of black-and-white video projections plays out upstage (the instrumental ensemble is placed between, in church-like stalls). The video layer contributes part commentary, part actual stage design for the action unfolding. Kentridge's intensely metaphorical imagery reveals an organic, Da Vinci-like sensibility for spying out the web-like connections underlying its recurrent motifs of anatomy, medical procedures, nature, architecture — and catastrophe. It's all a great deal to take in (not even counting the English supertitles) and yet, to me at least, does not become intrusive or distracting.

All of which should make it clear that this is no antiquarian attempt to give us the original Full Monte — an impossible undertaking in any case, since the opera survives in a form which necessitates a complex slew of performance choices and guesses, including how it should be orchestrated. Badoaro's libretto concentrates on the Odyssey's climax. Ulysses has been absent from home for 20 years; he has now returned, disguised as an aged beggar, routs the suitors who have plagued his faithful wife Penelope, and, with the gods at last taking pity, is reunited with her.

But both Kentridge and Stubbs have significantly compressed the opera that will be familiar to Monteverdi geeks. They cut several characters and subplots, distilling the rest into a powerfully concentrated experience, without intermission, that lasts a little shy of two hours. The splendid instrumental ensemble is similarly streamlined, calling for just seven players, with Stubbs leading and playing chitarrone (a deep bass lute). Maxine Eilander, who is married to Stubbs, contributes especially enchanting accompaniment on baroque harp. The other five string players are likewise imaginative in improvising expressive embroideries of the basic harmonic line.

Vocally, the production is rather more uneven, although the level of acting and character projection is uniformly engaging. Ross Hauck (who sang Nero a couple of seasons ago in the Early Music Guild's staging of Monteverdi's final opera) brings flair and style to the low tenor title role, and Laura Pudwell's honey-rich mezzo is nicely tuned both to Penelope's melancholy and to her self-reliance.

Cyndia Sieden's lovely lyrical phrasing makes her a stand-out as Minerva, Ulysses' guardian goddess. Sarah Mattox and Jason McStoots also make fine contributions, and the trio of suitors (Douglas Williams, James L. Brown, and Zachary Wilder) has a swell time hamming it up with Monteverdi's mockery of their florid hypocrisy. Some of the most delightfully surprising moments in the score occur his musical dramatization of their contest to string Ulysses' bow.

The cuts, however, take the edge off the suitors. Perhaps the one significant miscalculation, dramatically, is that they appear as comic foils to be overcome, rather than as seriously dangerous interlopers. (A subplot in which they scheme to kill Ulysses' son Telemachus is gone.) Moreover, the climactic recognition scene between Penelope and her husband — a wonderful counterpart to the earlier duet between father and son — seems to lack a few degrees of warmth. Given the grimness of life's fragility which is emphasized in this production, you'd expect such moments to be all the more pivotal — fleeting glimpses of hope.

Still, this Ulysses is an extraordinary event. It sets up a deeply moving counterpoint between "ancient music" and the sensibility of life today that reaffirms the relevance of Monteverdi's art. Curiously, last month's production of Orfeo by the visiting company La Venexiana seemed to attempt something similar but was heavily splintered into two tracks: an excellent musical performance and an awkward, unconvincing dramatic "concept" that the singers never seemed to believe in. Even as Ulysses lies on his deathbed in the show's concluding visual, Kentridge and Stubbs bring us a Monteverdi who is fully alive.


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