Il Ritorno Di Ulisse In Patria
Austere, beautifully performed homecoming for a not-so-wily Ulysses
This article is from 2009.
It's hard at first to know where to look on this stage. The story of Ulysses' return, as written by Monteverdi, is played out by puppets, but close behind them are their puppeteers, their heads only a few centimetres apart and a few centimetres larger than those of their wooden charges. Then there are their operatic ventriloquists, also close at hand and in many cases helping with the manipulation of the heavy puppets. In a semicircle around Ulysses, who lies dying on a central operating table, sit the musicians, seated on the benches of a seventeenth-century operating theatre. On a screen behind, a stream of moving animated images provides a constantly changing backdrop and ideas-board, and three smaller screens provide English surtitles for the fast-moving Italian dialogue.
It takes time to fit the pieces together and find the stillness and the pathos in Kentridge's production. But once you grow accustomed to the many bodies and emotionally-charged faces surrounding each character, and once you settle into the drift and rhythm of Kentridge's drawings and projections, the austerity of the music (this is Monteverdi at his most sober) and the gravitas and poise of the puppets (magnificent naturalistic wood and cloth creations by the Handspring Puppet Company) ripen into a subtle, tender meditation on bodily frailty and the limits of human wanderings.
This is not the story of Odysseus of the many wiles, and there are no one-eyed giants or witches to be overcome in these three acts. The narrative, recalled from the perspective of a hospital bed, is from the end of Homer's Odyssey, telling of Ulysses' return to his fatherland and the recovery of his house and faithful wife. Monteverdi via Kentridge's opera is a tale of homecoming, and at base (despite a much-appreciated comic interlude from a gaudy trio of suitors) a solemn parable about the vulnerabilities which attend even on the most powerful of mythical heroes.
For an age where Nausicaa's Phoenicia (the coast of modern-day Lebanon) and Polyphemus' Sicily no longer occupy the uncharted outer reaches of the human imagination, Kentridge has relocated the realm of the uncontrollable, of Jove's lightning bolts and Poseidon's storms, in the sphere of corporeal angst. Anatomical drawings and endoscopic video trips through squelching passageways are the monsters over Ulysses' bed, and long hospital corridors are a recurring feature of his remembered travels.
There is great grace in the use of puppets to enact this tale, and although it takes time to overcome the initial sensory discombobulation, the action is calm and focussed by the close of the opera, with Penelope and Odysseus in firm possession of the stage.
It was a beautiful, skillfully rendered performance. Whether you're convinced by Monteverdi/Kentridge, however, is perhaps a matter of perspective. Despite the conceptual reworking and the focus on the Wilderness Within, I found it difficult to engage fully with a Ulysses who had lost his wiles. I wasn't sure that this austere moral-philosopher-hero entirely translated into the present day, and I wasn't sure that the crossover between 17th century operating theatre and stainless steel hospital bed was creating a character in whom I was particularly interested. But then, I'm young, and it was an International Festival show, so maybe it was just audience-aware.