Although the fashion for “early opera” had a resurgence in the late 20th century, it is a rare treat to hear his Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, particularly in the setting of the Harold Peto cloister at Iford Manor near Bradford on Avon.
The opening night for the Early Opera Company production at Iford was one of those perfect nights when you KNOW that this is the most beautiful of all the garden opera venues, and the music could only add to the experience.
And in celebration of the cloister’s centenary, there was bubbles on the terrace in the interval.
This is the story of Penelope, living a solitary and celibate life while her husband Ulysses is missing, surrounded by sycophantic and lascivious suitors keen not only on her body but her kingdom.
She has nourished a conviction that Ulysses will return, and now it is to be tested.
The hero has always had the support of the goddess Minerva, and this is the moment she takes over, changing his appearance so that he can return to his court and face down the would-be usurpers.
Monteverdi wrote this opera in his later years, while he was ailing, alongside the more frequently performed L’incoronazione di Poppea.
The music ranges from the plangency of Penelope to the bombast of her suitors and the visceral power of the goddess, and this production, directed by Justin Way and conducted by EOC founder Christian Curnyn, captures the wit and passion in the tiny cloister. Designer Kimm Kovac has created a set that dazzlingly sets off every plane and vista of the cloister, costuming her actors in colours that set off the action – the silver glitter of Minerva, reflected in the mirrored lower walls, is an inspiration.
I don’t think in the 19 years I have been attending operas at Iford I have ever heard such a marvellous collection of singers.
Rowan Hellier, who delighted audiences at Bath Festival this year, returns to the region to sing the anguished Penelope, with Jonathan Mcgovern (pictured) compelling and muscular as the returning hero.
Daniel Auchincloss is the faithful shepherd, and Callum Thorpe’s gorgeous bass is perfect for the schemingly arrogant Antinous.
Elizabeth Cragg’s angry Minerva is a menacing joy.
Once again the orchestra is made up of some of the finest “original instrumentalists” the country has to offer.
Monteverdi didn’t write big arias, but the beauty of some of his music takes your breath away.
In this setting, the company takes what can be difficult and inaccessible and transforms it into a delightful experience for the ears and the eyes, capturing the excitement that only opera can.