One of the posh frocks and picnic venues that combine musical excellence with spectacular gardens is Iford Manor, near Bath. This year’s early music offering was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria performed by the Early Opera Company (2 Aug 2014) in a setting that could not be more Italian. Iford’s Peto Garden is full of Italian references, and the operas take place inside a pastiche 100 year-old Italian cloister – one of the most intimate opera spaces I know.
The 12-strong (and vocally strong) cast was headed by mezzo Rowan Hellier as the complex and emotional confused Penelope with Jonathan McGovern as the returning Ulysses. Penelope’s three suitors were Callum Thorpe, Russell Harcourt and Alexander Robin Baker, with Oliver Mercer as their advocate Eurymachus. Elizabeth Cragg and Annie Gill made fine contributions as Minerva and Melanto, as did Daniel Auchincloss as Eumaeus, here portrayed as a gamekeeper. The Prologue was sensibly omitted, allowing the opening focus to be on Penelope’s grief.
The audience sit within a few feet of the central stage and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the unfolding drama. It is a real test of the singers’ sense of character and voice to be able to project to such a close audience. Justin Way directed, using Christopher Cowell’s sensible ENO English translation, and an excellent and beautifully lit staging by Kimm Kovac, using imaginative and vaguely modern dress with a hint of the abdication era. Christian Curnyn directed his seven Early Opera Company players from the harpsichord, the violins of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber being much in evidence.