- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

The Wolf Trap Opera Company’s new production of Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” (“The Return of Ulysses”) is well worth trekking out to the Vienna woods to see. It’s a welcome break in the metropolitan area’s nonstop fascination with any sung drama so long as it’s written by Mozart or Puccini.

By the judicious use of scenic projections, this clever production effortlessly conjures up the epic movement of time and space. While the costuming is occasionally quirky, it helps create the proper sense of class and decorum (or lack thereof) for each character.

But the production’s real strength lies in its instrumental accompaniment — exquisitely provided by period instruments and superb musicians who really know how to play them — and in its cast of uncommonly talented young singers who fully grasp the improvisational opportunities inherent in the score.

It requires some adaptation on the part of each vocalist to master many of these early music techniques. These include singing with minimal vibrato as well as the use of unusual ornamentation, including the rather odd goat trill — the rapid repetition of a single note, a little like a musical stutter, which Monteverdi employed to emphasize highly dramatic moments.

Plotwise, “Ulysses” is relatively easy to follow for audiences familiar with Homer’s “Odyssey.” The 1640 opera focuses on the return of Ulysses to his homeland and his defeat of the obnoxious suitors vying for the hand (and money) of his long-suffering but faithful wife, Penelope. Meanwhile, we also get occasional glimpses of the quarreling gods as they attempt to stage-manage this epic story’s ultimate outcome.

In the central role of Ulysses, tenor Dominic Armstrong, fresh from his recent triumph as MacHeath in the Castleton Festival’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” displayed his mastery of an entirely different era’s music. With a voice of great purity and expressiveness, his interpretation of a humbled Ulysses provided this somewhat unwieldy story with a strong central pillar.

As much put-upon Penelope, mezzo Jamie Barton selflessly did what she was asked by stage director James Marvel, putting on a mournful face and lamenting in broad, almost funereal tones, her dreadful fate.

As Melanto, Penelope’s wanton maidservant, energetic mezzo Jamie Van Eyck provided a delightful if unserious counterpoint, as did Penelope’s three over-the-top suitors sung by David Portillo, Carlos Monzon and Matthew Hanscom with wicked abandon. Also adding a broadly comic touch was tenor Diego Torre as the uncommonly disgusting glutton, Iro.

Other notable supporting roles included those of Ulysses’ long-lost son Telemaco (baritone Chad Sloan) and his chief benefactress, the goddess Minerva (soprano Ava Pine). In smaller roles, the remaining singers also excelled. The entire production — possibly one of the best we’ve ever seen at the Barns at Wolf Trap — was expertly conducted by Gary Thor Wedow.

A hearty bravo to all who helped make this “Ulysses” a tremendous success.

★★★★

WHAT: Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap

TICKETS: $34 to 68

PHONE: 877/965-3872

WEB SITE: www.wolftrap.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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