Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

West Edge Opera's Ulisse

Ulisse-2015* Notes * 
The West Edge Opera opened the third and last opera of its 2015 Festival with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria last night. Monteverdi's opera was held at American Steel Studios in Oakland, a former pipe factory turned studio space. The industrial atelier seems at odds with the Baroque opera but the result was surprisingly intimate, and the voices reigned supreme.

The venue was founded by Karen Cusolito, whose large scale work includes the enormous dandelion currently in Uptown Oakland and the monumental work Ecstasy which was seen in The Crucible's Fire opera, at Burning Man, and on Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley. We were in a section of the building with a relatively low ceiling that worked acoustically. The windows that lined the area above the stage made for a beautiful effect as the light dimmed outside.

Director Mark Streshinsky used three platforms to create a U-shaped stage around the small Baroque ensemble. We were in close proximity to the instruments and the area around the audience was used extensively. Streshinsky was characteristically humorous, for instance Minerva brings Telemaco to Ulysses on a Vespa.

There were extensive cuts, which made the length of the piece a very manageable two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission. Conducted by Gilbert Martinez, who also played harpischord and regal, the orchestra had a dry, understated sound. This let the singers shine.

Many of the smaller parts were of a more humorous nature. Of these the suitors -- Gary Ruschman (Pisandro), Jonathan Smucker (Anfinomo), and Aaron Sorensen (Antinoo) -- and the parasite Iro -- portrayed by Ted Zoldan -- were especially funny. There was fine comic timing and all sorts of sight gags.

Ruschman and Sorensen also sang Jupiter and Neptune, and their transformations were so complete that it would be easy to think the characters had been depicted by four singers instead of two. Kindra Scharich also gave a particularly strong performance as Minerva, as her voice is powerful and resonant.

Nikolas Nackley (Ulysses) and Sara Couden (Penelope) both have expressive voices and were vocally convincing in the roles. The staging kept them in close quarters with the audience and gave the performance a forthright and honest feel. There was nowhere to hide.

* Tattling * 
This was the least stuffy of the three venues used in West Edge Opera's Festival this year. There did seem to be a lot of sawing going on in adjacent studios.


Aldenritorno1Bayerische Staatoper's production of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria had almost no redeeming qualities. If they find Baroque operas so boring they shouldn't bother putting them on. It shows very little respect to be making Monteverdi's opera into a farce. It was so bad that even I could not sit through it twice, though I had a ticket for the performance on the 18th, the thought of going again made me feel ill.

David Alden's remarkable work included the return of the Chattering Teeth head, playboy bunnies, a gigantic projected raven, hot dogs, and the eating of a cat. If he had only stopped here, it would have been merely bad. The laughter that ensued after this must have been gratifying. I'm sure they were pleased to be able to use the Chattering Teeth head again in Siegfried.

Worse yet, the singers were made to tap dance and flamenco during the music, although the movements involved are both percussive and inappropriate for Monteverdi. It made me wish for the drunken staggering Alden has used in every other production of his I've seen, at least that is not loud. Also, some of the singers would punctuate their parts with stuttering or screaming, elements not found in the music.

It must have been difficult for the audience to focus on the singing, they talked and laughed quite a lot. Rodney Gilfry, who sang the title role, has an excellent voice, very rich and full. Vivica Genaux, as Penelope, was disappointing, the mezzo's voice is underdeveloped. She sounds light and young. Toby Spence (Telemaco) also sounded a bit young, but for his part it was appropriate.

I was unable to get a good feel for Monteverdi from this opera, as the production was distracting. The scene in which Odysseus kills the suitors had the most powerful music.