Minimalist ‘Ulysses,’ Maximum Impact


Ulysses’ return home to his wife, after his long and astonishing odyssey, is one of the images that tell us, in the Western world, who we are. He has grown old, changed. So has Penelope. They hardly know each other anymore; she doesn’t at first recognize him or believe him. They will probably stay together--it’s ancient Greece, after all, and there is a kingdom at stake. But Homer leaves us, at the end of the “Odyssey,” with the sense that time, fortune and love will always dominate mortals, however noble and strong we may think our will.

Literature, art, theater, music have, for all the centuries since Homer, amplified this great theme. But to see it enacted with as much sophistication, depth, beauty and truth as it was in the opening Tuesday of the L.A. Opera production of Monteverdi’s “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria"--"The Return of Ulysses,” as the title has been conveniently shortened and translated--is to experience it with a rare sense of both the relevance of the theme and its ancient resonance.

Monteverdi, who was on hand for the birth of opera 400 years ago and is its first composer of genius, is something of a stretch for a traditional opera company. But this production by Pierre Audi, borrowed from the Netherlands Opera, is special and significant in its ability to find a common ground between modern Minimalist art and theater and the period practices of early opera.

When Audi was appointed to head Netherlands Opera nine years ago, he was thought to be something of a joke. He had founded an experimental music and theater festival at the Almeida Theatre in London, but he had no background in standard opera.


The joke, of course, has been on the opera world, since Audi has made Amsterdam the freshest place in Europe to witness opera. In the last two seasons, for instance, Netherlands Opera has been responsible for the most shocking new opera of the decade, Louis Andriessen’s “Rosa,” directed by filmmaker Peter Greenaway, and probably the most impressive opera performance of the decade--Pierre Boulez conducting Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron.”

But it was Audi’s 1990 production of “The Return of Ulysses” that set the tone for his great transformation of what had been a marginal company. One of Audi’s missions has been to bring important visual artists to the stage, and Michael Simon’s stunning set for “Ulysses” could almost be mistaken for a gallery of Minimalist sculpture. Seldom has the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looked so hip.

The music is minimalist as well. Glen Wilson, the American early music specialist, has made an edition of the Monteverdi score for only 10 musicians playing period instruments, here expertly handled by the local Musica Angelica. A good third of the music is cut, removing all the scenes for the gods, to better focus the drama.

What all this minimalism does is allow for a focus on solo singing and acting, as well as make the various big theatrical moments all the more astonishing. One hesitates to give them away, but the live eagle is so extraordinary that you will be startled anyway. Same with the fire.

The casting is a mix of box-office draws--Frederica von Stade(Penelope) and Thomas Allen (Ulysses)--with singers associated with early music (the vivid countertenor David Daniels), with more experimental music theater (the marvelous character tenor John Duykers) along with L.A. Opera regulars. Everyone looks great in Jorge Jara’s high-style costumes and under Jean Kalman’s brilliant light.

Two standouts are Paula Rasmussen, a powerful presence as Minerva (the one deity allowed to remain in this production), and the imposing bass Kenneth Cox as Time in the prologue and one of Penelope’s suitors later. Carlo Scibelli (Telemaco) and Jacque Trussel (Eumete) are also strong. Less so Melanto (Tihana Herceg) and Eurimaco (Jorge Garza).

Most remarkable of all are Allen and Von Stade. They appear old, and at first I thought they really had aged a good deal over the last year or two. But it’s the drama. They get stronger and more vital as the situation demands. Their coming together at the end may be happy in song, but their faces and body language are still full of doubt. That they don’t fall into each other’s arms until the last chord, weary and wise and maybe no longer in love, is exceptional theater.

* “The Return of Ulysses” continues tonight at 7:30, Saturday at 1 p.m., and May 13, 16 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $23-$130. (213) 972-8001.