Review: Opera Omnia Presents The Return of Ulysses

By Cory Healy on 18 September 2013
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The musicians and the stage

The musicians and the stage

Given that New York is one of the largest cities in the world, finding an intimate setting for opera that isn’t as crowded as a subway car during rush hour can be a daunting task.  Nestled in the Hudson Yards neighborhood on Manhattan’s far West Side, however, sits the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which offers a somewhat secret viewing experience in the smaller of its two stages, the 136-seat Howard Gilman Performance Space.  Here, the Baroque-focused collective called Opera Omnia performed Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” to sold-out houses last Wednesday evening.

“The Return of Ulysses” is based on the second half of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. After a 20-year absence and long journey home from the Trojan War, Ulysses (Jesse Blumberg) miraculously washes up on the shores of Ithaca.  As the acts unfold, he must then save the ever-faithful Penelope (Hai-Ting Chinn) from three villainous suitors and simultaneously regain control over his kingdom with the help of the gods of Time, Fortune, and Love.

To streamline the jump from Ulysses’ departure to his return journey, shadow puppets are used to recreate some events, such as the Fall of Troy and the encounter with three sirens.  Penelope stakes spears outside her palace to mark each year’s passing, making it easy for the audience to keep track of the timeline.  These staging devices work well; one doesn’t have to be versed in Homer to relate to Penelope’s pain.

Blumberg and Chinn prove to be a great match for each other as the leads.  While they are both talented on their own, their reunion in the finale shows their compatibility, instilling joy and admiration in the audience.  Great support is offered by Karim Sulayman who portrays Eumaeus, Ulysses’ loyal friend and the first to see through his friend’s beggar disguise.  Another supporting character is played by Joseph Gaines, whose role as the beggar Irus is delightful; he exudes an incredibly captivating stage presence.

One minor issue I encountered had less to do with the performance and more regarded the performance space’s four giant, uncovered windows that overlooked 10thAvenue and on up to the Hudson River.  There were several times where I was distracted by New York’s twinkling lights in the background, and once  a large party boat that happened to be cruising by caught my eye.  Despite this, the performers effortlessly won back my attention and immersed me back in the story.

The captivating costume design by Muriel Stockdale was successful in stealing the eye; it offered something more enticing than the intrusive background cityscape.  Penelope’s dress was chic yet ornate, embedded with gold, while Time, Fortune and Love were adorned in coin jewelry that twinkled in the lights whenever they moved.  Neptune (Joe Chappel) was adorned in rich tones of turquoise and gold. His bright blue lipstick popped even more with the help of Evan Purcell’s masterful stage lighting, which beamed down deep blues and indigo hues on Neptune and emanated from the curtains draped below the high platforms the actors trod upon.

Opera Omnia, which is presenting its third production in five years, is a unicorn of off-Broadway groups in New York.  Prior Opera Omnia productions include the “Coronation of Poppea” (another Monteverdi classic) in 2008 and Carvalli’s “Giasone” in 2011.  In the program notes, Crystal Manich, the stage director, wrote of the universality of these ancient works: “these stories…breathe and thrive according to our personal experience rather than becoming mere museum pieces rooted only in eras and societies we cannot possibly fully and truly understand.”  Opera Omnia has done a superb job of revitalizing “The Return of Ulysses” in this manner, and I look forward to seeing what the group has in store for future productions.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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