Opera review: The Return of Ulysses at Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny Arts Festival

By Cathy Desmond

4/5 stars

Written for the party goers of the 1639 Venice Carnivale, Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses was said by one scholar to have enough sex, gore and elements of the supernatural to satisfy the most jaded Venetian palate.

Raphaela Mangan, Andrew Gavin and Rory Musgrave in The Return of Ulysses. Picture: Marshall Light Studio

The operatic retelling of Homer’s epic was the choice of outgoing artistic director, Eugene Downes, for the first fully staged opera at Kilkenny Arts Festival. This production, directed by Patrick Mason, sung in English was performed for the first time in Ireland at the Watergate Theatre. It had a multiplicity of elements that made for a rare and memorable night of music and drama.

Under Christian Curnyn, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin were not confined to the pit but arranged around the stage. With harp lutes and small organ but no drums or brass, the sound is other-worldly and mesmerising and reinforces the impression of Penelope’s crowded house. Catherine Fay’s costumes appear to be set in 20th century war-time. There are elegant gowns for the female gods and tweeds and military costumes for the suitors. Telemacho (Andrew Gavin) emerges from the ‘airborne chariot’ in ‘Biggles’ leather jacket and goggles.

A main strength was the terrific cast of 14 voices, mostly young Irish singers of Opera Collective Ireland who play a cast of 30 characters. Gyula Nagy as a Ulysses and Raphaela Mangan as Penelope were compelling and their final reunion was a satisfying and moving conclusion.

The best comic moments came from Ross Scanlon’s gluttonous Iro and Rory Musgrave’s shepherd Eumete. 

There is an element of slapstick physicality as the gods scramble between two levels representing heaven and earth.

The second half has the best of the dramatic tension as Ulysses rethreads his bow and sees off the suitors. Paul Keogan’s huge lighting rig frames the action produces lightning and fire at key moments and thunderbolts are added by Denis Clohessy’s soundtrack.

There is a paucity of ensemble numbers in the piece and those that do occur are so lovely you wish Monteverdi had included more of them.

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