Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – EIF, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

[seen 15/08/17]

Ever since I saw David Marton’s wildly deconstructed version of Monteverdi’s proto-opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, at the Schaubühne in 2011(?), I’ve been kind of fascinated by it. Not least because I quite wanted to see *everything else*. [Sure. I’ve got old. I sometimes like to see “properly” as well now. Sue me. (tbf, Marton’s version had removed 95% of the music, and I didn’t want to see historical costumes or anything, so I think my former-self can relax)]

This version performed by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and directed (brillantly) in a semi-staged concert setting by Elsa Rooke is nigh on perfect. [The cheap seats round the side of the Upper Circle, however, are some of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever experienced, however. Brutally uncomfortable, with no leg-room, to the point of absurdity.] And what a strange piece it is. The first half (1hr35) is pretty much entirely made up of new characters being introduced. The “plot,” such as it is, barely moves forward at all. I think we get maybe one or two returns to *really* central characters, but mostly it’s just “Hey, let’s meet *this* new guy now!” Bizarrely, this completely suicidal (not least because of cost) dramatic structure is actually pretty entertaining. Or at least, quite funny. And not unsuccessful. You do get repeatedly drawn in, wondering who all these people are, and whether the plot will ever really kick off. And the music is pretty relentlessly gorgeous, so there’s that too.

Given how old this opera is (1640-ish), and how much it played a part in inventing the form, I was weirdly reminded of Middle Child’s new forays into gig theatre. Indeed, aside from the complete opposite-ends-of-the-musical-spectrum approaches, there is something astonishing about sitting in a hall in Edinburgh watching what is essentially a (largely context free) recreation of the invention of opera and it feeling similarly exciting and inventive now. The instruments used here seem to be largely authentic, early-modern/Renaissance ones, rather than a re-orchestration of Monteverdi’s score, but rather than feeling like this being museum-y for the sake of it, their very tones and unfamiliarity actually act to make the music feel more strange, rather than “more traditional” (Globe modernisers, take note).

In this original-form, you can maybe hear influences from more unexpected sources (maybe a hint of Arabic and perhaps even Balkan/Bulgarian) as well as the more “traditional” “Western” styles that it itself went on to extert influence over. (Geographically, historically, politically, this all makes a lot of sense – and maybe with current events raging so loudly outside/on-our-minds/etc. it’s particularly good to be forcibly reminded that the crucible of “Western” civilisation in the Mediterranean was (x2; both in classical times and during the Renaissance) not just some monolith of “whiteness” (whatever the fuck that’s meant to mean anyway) but a crossroads of cultures, all appropriating each others’ better ideas with nary a thought to political correctness).

So, yeah. What an incredibly rich experience on several different levels. One might wish that, for all its insides are *evocative*, the good people of Edinburgh might consent to having the seating in the Usher Hall made fit for the C21st, and one might also wish that this concert hadn’t been a one-off [although a) it wasn’t full, and b) it still probably sold more tickets than it’s possible for, say, Barrel Organ to sell for their entire run...]. Nevertheless, a far more convincing example of what the International Festival is for than The Divide, by all accounts.

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