Just as the Salonen-conducted "Tristan" in Los Angeles triumphed over
Bill Viola's projected distractions, a musically superior performance
of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses" (http://tinyurl.com/dnyte6) in
San Francisco's Theater Artaud tonight helped the audience overcome
William Kentridge's "visual background."
On a screen fortuitously smaller than Viola's overwhelming one, Kentridge
projected a persistent sonogram (?), one sequence that looked like a
colonoscopy, and lots of abstract images. Who needs this, especially
in addition to the busy supertitles?
Two other aspects of Kentridge's direction paid off, however. Adrian
Kohler's five-foot high wooden puppets (from South Africa), manipulated
by both singers and puppeteers were strangely effective and affecting.
The other innovation looked at first suspicious: Ulysses' puppet self
(amazingly lifelike in movements) spent the entire opera in a hospital
bed, but suddenly was "cloned" into another, identical puppet, healthy
and heroic, acting upstage while the sick Ulysses stayed downstage.
Then, at the very end of the opera, when Ulysses II and Penelope find
each other, Ulysses I dies - showing in retrospect that the happy ending
was the dying man's dream.
OK, but how was the music? Terrific. Stephen Stubbs' Pacific Operaworks
is a jewel. Ross Hauck in the title role and Laura Pudwell as Penelope
both sang with intensity and precision, vibrant presence, even while
behind the puppets representing them, and busy manipulating the figures.
Cyndia Sieden sang Love and Athena, Sarah Mattox Fate and Melanto, Jason
McStoots Zeus and Eumaeus (the latter especially well), Douglas Williams
Time, Neptune and Antinoo; James L. Brown Pisandro; and Zachary Wilder
Telemachus and Anfinomo.
The chamber orchestra, led by Stubbs, was right up there, along with the
singers: Maxine Eilander (harp), Margriet Tindemans (viola da gamba),
Elizabeth Brown (archlute), David Morris (cello and lirone), Ingrid
Matthews and Alicia Yang (violins).
Such small company, such grand opera, so grandly performed!
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