SAN FRANCISCO — "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria"--or, if you will, "The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland"--is a perplexing challenge under the best of circumstances.
Nearly 350 years after the Venice premiere, impatient audiences do not respond instantly to Monteverdi's sprawling inventions and formula conventions. It is easy to recognize the composer's progressive genius. At the same time, it is difficult to find pathos in his baroque flights of mythological indulgence as aligned to complex recitatives, stark arias and decorative set pieces.
Two years ago, the dauntless Michael Milenski introduced a provocative version of this historic masterpiece in Long Beach. It looked backward honorably with a scholarly musical edition by Nicholas McGegan. At the same time, it looked forward brilliantly with an iconoclastic postmodern staging scheme by Christopher Alden.
Friday, the San Francisco Opera tried its more conservative, more grandiose hand at the same elusive challenge. The last entry of an emphatically mediocre season, the new production looked promising on paper.
One might have regretted the choice of Raymond Leppard's rather muddled, artificially sweetened performing edition--neither authentically ancient like McGegan's nor impudently modern like Hans Werner Henze's. Still, one could look forward to the stylish direction of Michael Hampe and the clever designs of the late Mauro Pagano, justly celebrated in Salzburg and Cologne. One also could look forward to the work of a stellar ensemble led by such thoughtful paragons as Thomas Hampson and Frederica von Stade.
At the opening performance on Friday, unfortunately, calamity inadvertently begat calamity. It was one of those bizarre, accident-prone nights.
At the outset, the infernal supertitles were projected on the wrong surface above the proscenium arch, the top line losing legibility amid the drapery. This problem would have been avoided, of course, if the text had been sung in accessible, sensible English--as it had been in Long Beach. But. . . .
Before the opera could run--no, stroll--its 3 1/2-hour course, the tragic heroine tripped over her costume, the hapless hero nearly lost his wig, a desperate Telemachus had to risk a dangerous leap from a recalcitrant floating chariot, and the silly flying machine assigned to the goddess Minerva took a wrong turn. Monteverdi's deus was obviously having trouble with his machina .
All that, however, was just passing piffle. The real disaster turned out to be basic and on-going.
Hampe had devised a fluid plan of action in which characters and props constantly move in and out of sight on an open stage via a central hydraulic lift. Ten minutes into the opera, the lift--just installed in the War Memorial Opera House--got stuck. It never rose or fell thereafter.
An amplified voice backstage, presumably belonging to the stage manager, begged the audience's indulgence while the company solved a "technical problem." When the performance resumed a few minutes later, it was improvisation time.
A blackout curtain was hastily employed to hide the frantic scene changes. Some scenic devices had to be deleted. Visual continuity was disrupted, and the basic narrative concept destroyed.
At intermission, members of the press were handed a printed notice of the "malfunction," along with official encouragement "to return for a subsequent performance to view Mr. Hampe's staging as he originally planned it." Significantly, the management did not deem an explanation or apology worthwhile for the paying customers.
The cast performed nobly despite the obvious tensions. Hampson sustained easy authority, manly dignity and feverish intensity as the agonized yet mellifluous Ulisse. Von Stade brooded with poetic sensitivity and sang with radiant pathos as his passionately devoted, chronically vulnerable Penelope.
The large supporting cast exhibited uniform valor. Susan Graham exulted in the guiding flourishes of Minerva. Vinson Cole exuded boyish purity as Telemachus. Curtis Rayam mustered grotesque irony as the gluttonous Iro. William Lewis magnified the fervor of the faithful shepherd, Eumete.
The customary contingent of servants was splendidly represented by Kathryn Cowdrick as the earthy soubrette, Kip Wilborn as her wily admirer, and Jacalyn Bower as the old contralto nurse. The able gaggle of gods, guardians and victims was dominated by two booming bassos: Kenneth Cox and James Patterson.
Mario Bernardi conducted with graceful verve but enforced oddly inconsistent laws of ornamentation. The large, responsive, anachronistic orchestra enlisted soupy strings as well as electronic keyboards.
Hampe's enlightened stage direction--originally intended to reinforce the wild Henze edition--focuses on elegant stylization while toying with complementary artifacts of Homer's epic, Baroque theater and Everyman ritual. Pagano's elegant designs, superbly lighted by Thomas J. Munn, fuse sparse Wielandesque abstraction with ornate narrative props and boldly literal symbols.
It would be nice to see this often dazzling, sometimes charming, always stimulating production when everything actually works. Perhaps that will happen in the not-too-distant future when the Music Center Opera gets around to its promised version.
Hope springs internal.