Ulysses makes a brilliant come back

Excellent Anne-Catherine Gillet as Minerva and Rolando Villazon in Monte Verdi’s Ulysses, Photo, Vincent Pontet

There were many reasons to be excited to see « Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria », one of only three operas composed by Claudio Monteverdi ( in Venice in 1640) at Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The director, Mariame Clément, is steadily climbing in the aeropagus of International opera directors and she did not disappoint us. Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon was singing Ulysses and Le Concert d’Astrée, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, has proved over the years to be an excellent baroque orchestra.

Penelope, Magdalena Kozena, is courted by many men, photo, Vincent Pontet

And the public was totally overwhelmed. The story from the Odyssey of Ulysses slowly coming back home from Troy with the help of Minerva, is paralleled by Penelope’s 20 year long wait in Ithaca. She is assaulted by would-be king suitors. Solitude, wandering, destiny, freedom and fidelity are among the themes treated in this very early opera.

Ulysses tempted on his way back by naiads, photo, Vincent Pontet

A graduate of Ecole normale supérieure, the 42 year old French- Iranian director taught French at Harvard and has developped her career at Glyndebourne, Lausanne, Athens and many other International stages. At the Première, the director announced that 11 out of 15 singers had been sick during rehearsals, (Rolando Villazon was still unwell) and that Greek American Mary-Ellen Nesi was stepping in to replace a sick Elodie Méchain in Euryclée’s part. Luckily she was singing the part at the Monnaie de Bruxelles this week !

Mathias Vidal, Kresimir Spicer and Rolando Villazon, photo, Vincent Pontet

The evening was nevertheless excellent with a variety of decors and costumes some of which were too glitzy for my taste, including a Coca Cola distributor and a giant Mac burger, but they kept the story very much alive. The International cast was great and the lighting by Bernd Purkrabek especially beautiful.

Mary-Ellen Nesi and Magdalena Kozena in a beautiful decor by Julia Hansen, photo, Vincent Pontet

Voices were all good and particularly the three « lovers »in black tie, Antinoüs (bass barytone Callum Thorpe), Amphinome (Lothar Odinius) and Pisandre (the lovely counter tenor Maarten Engeltjes). They were all over Penelope who kept on singing: “I am Ulysses’s spouse but of a disappeared Ulysses” not recognizing her own husband after twenty years… I regretted that Télémaque, Ulysses’s 20 year old son, looked so sloppy (in jeans) and old, and the voice I preferred was Minerva’s, the Belgian singer Anne-Catherine Gillet, who is a born actress and a perfect goddess.

Théâtre des Champs Elysées has caught back a number of opera lovers who can’t be bothered to go to Opéra Bastille in the traffic jams and the crowd was especially elegant that evening. Students from Ecole Supérieure du parfum were making you try a hand cream dedicated to Penelope and a special cocktail was served on the second floor. The very long work seemed gone in a second so lively and fun was the action. I was the first one to be surprised!

(Until March 13 in Paris and in Dijon from March 31 to April 2)

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