Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
The Grange, Northington, Hampshire. 18 June 2017
The Grange, in Northington, Hampshire, achieved it current form in the early 19th century, when the architect William Wilkins (later to design the National Gallery) encased a 17th century house in grand Greek revival style. Further work by Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum, and Charles Robert Cockerell completed the scheme. It came to public notice in 1975 when the owners, a junior branch of the Baring banking family, attempted to demolish the building. The exterior was listed by the Government, on account of its appearance and landscape importance, and placed into the guardianship of English Heritage, who instigated major restoration of the exterior of the building and opened the site to the public. It reached much wider appreciation in 1998 when the new Grange Park Opera took a 20 year lease from the Baring landlords, and started a summer opera season. In 2002 they built an award-winning new opera house within the shell of the old orangery, investing several million pounds in the project. They also did a considerable amount of work inside the shell of the building, including reinstating the dramatic staircase (pictured below). Disagreements with the Baring family led to Grange Park Opera decamping to a new home at the Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place, Surrey, not surprisingly taking many of the internal fittings from their Grange opera house with them.
The Baring family has now set up a new opera company, using the opera house that Grange Park Opera built. Judging by the opening season’s events, they are moving somewhat down-market from the earlier incarnation, with a much wider range of offerings including, in this season, a Rogers & Hammerstein event. To balance that, future plans include dance and theatre. Their opening opera was definitely not down-market, with a rare performance of the least known of Monteverdi’s surviving operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Stage directed by Tim Supple, with rather complex designs by Sumant Jayakrishnan, this production clicked many boxes, without quite achieving perfection.
The Prologue opened with a black-tied member of the audience being summoned up to the stage by three white-coated medics, where he was stripped to his boxers and strapped to a circular frame. This was countertenor Robin Blaze as Human Fraility, tormented by the gods of Time, Fortune, and Love, each with their dramatically depicted alter egos (labelled as ‘Physicalisations’) in the form of a man on enormous stilts, a girl on a bicycle, and a figure prancing about on race-runner blades. This opening was a clue as to the visual mood of the rest of the evening. The setting was sparse, with a series of tall panels surrounding the large central space, moved out and around the stage, with the surtitles projected onto them, making for a visually strong image. But there were long stretches towards the end when the surtitles were out of sight to a many in the audience, or were blocked by other bits of scenery. The musicians were divided to the far left and right of the orchestra pit, allowing the stage to project over the central part of the pit, giving a large stage area.
Visually the rest of the opera was equally powerful, if somewhat overdone. The bow-stringing scene was unbelievably complex, involving a complex series of gyrations from most of the cast, rather than the simple, or not, stringing of a bow. The bloody conclusion of the competition was similarly dramatic, albeit not quite in the form that the story indicates.
Of course, what opera is all about (in my view) is the music and the singing, rather than any directorial flights of fancy. On this occasion, the singing ranged from outstanding to bizarrely out of style with the music and the period. The later included a few singers with very strong vibrato, creating havoc with pitch and intonation. At the outstanding end of the spectrum came Paul Nilon as a powerfully depicted Ulisse, Anna Bonitatibus as the imperious Penelope, Robin Blaze as Human Fraility/Pisandro, Gwilym Bowen as Eurimaco/Jupiter, Thomas Elwin as Telemaco, Nigel Robson as the shepherd Eumete, Paul Whelan as Neptune/Antinoo, and Emma Stannard as the ever-present Minerva. Ronald Samm seemed to enjoy his role as the ‘fat, disgusting’ Iro.
Michael Chance, the artistic director of the new opera company, was listed as the musical director, and took the applause as such at the end. But there was no sign of him during the opera itself. From what I could see, the key to the considerable musical success was Paula Chateauneuf’s very impressive continuo group The Division Lobby. Seated to the far right of the pit, her chitarrone and guitar were joined by Robert Howarth and Giulia Nuti on harpsichords and organ, and Frances Kelly on harp. Robert Howarth and Giulia Nuti are acknowledged in the programme as being responsible for ‘Musical Preparation’. The entire opera is based on continuo accompaniment, and Paula Chateauneuf’s excellent programme note described the background to continuo accompaniment at the time of Monteverdi. On the far left of the stage were five string players from the Academy of Ancient Music, led by Pavio Beznosiuk, acting as the occasional ritornello band, their position creating obvious problems (nearly always overcome) of coordination with the continuo group on the other side of the pit.
One welcome change to The Grange scene was the landscaping work around the lakeside, previously so overgrown as to be practically invisible. Whatever the background to the departure of the Grange Park Opera, and the setting up of an obviously rival opera company by their previous landlords, it does have the benefit of creating two opera companies in the artistically impoverished counties of Hampshire and Surrey in the place of one.