I would imagine that if you were to stop a stranger on the sidewalk and ask him what a theorbo is, the most probable response in this day and age would hurriedly be, “a what?”
Well, to any dedicated fan of the instrument—of which there were apparently many in attendance at the Howard Gilman Performance Space in the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Thursday evening—being greeted by two of them upon entering the hall must have been a true delight. Being a self-proclaimed lover of all things early music myself, I will now confirm that it was, indeed, a delight, and the evening moved steadily upward from there.
Claudio Monteverdi’s stately opera The Return of Ulysses was written in 1640, only three years before the composer’s demise, and in the midst of the dawning of the operatic form, which he helped to pioneer. Designed at its inception to grace the intimate drawing room of a royal palace or a private performance space within an academic institution, this work draws together delicate forces, which were perfectly assembled by harpsichordist and conductor Avi Stein, Music Director of New York’s Opera Omnia. Mr. Stein, an accomplished organist and chamber musician, led his band with excellent precision and energetic sensitivity, all but transporting me and his audience to another time and place; a place that echoed the foregone days of Monteverdi, but remained suspended in a nebulous region, outside of time, that complimented both the raw beauty of the music and Opera Omnia’s mission, “to produce baroque works in non-traditional ways.”
While I would have preferred a hall with a more luscious acoustic, Mr. Stein’s orchestra, which included the two aforementioned theorbos (doubling baroque guitar), two violins, cello, harp, organ and harpsichord, established a firm foundation in the tradition of period-style performance, Mr. Stein sparsely conducting from the harpsichord with his index finger as needed. Throughout the production, Muriel Stockdale’s engaging costumes paid a consistent homage to the days of Homer, while remaining somewhat fresh and contemporary, and complimented the industrial aesthetic of Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets, which seemed to spring organically out of the raw concrete of the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s fourth floor performance space. One detail I found most enjoyable was the use of tiny shadow puppets, cast against sail-like screens, dictating the perils of Ulysses’ journeys.
By some coincidence (or perhaps the intervention of Homer’s gods?) the evening was enhanced by a chance thunderstorm, which surged throughout the entire production, flickering and rumbling outside the unobstructed floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of the stage.
Among a well balanced and thoughtfully curated cast, Jesse Blumberg brought Ulysses’ perils to life with strong resolve and an impressive instrument, though his youthful appearance at times overshadowed any possible belief that poor Ulysses had been at war and lost at sea for over twenty years. Opposite Blumberg, mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn portrayed the sullen, faithful Penelope with a very limited range of emotion, although her vocal range and flexibility was rather amazing. The trio of suiters, portrayed by Richard Lippold, Nicholas Tamagna and Brandon Snook, delighted right up until their sticky end by daggers and arrows, and padded much of the substance of the second act with fun energy. Of the gods, my favorite of the evening was portrayed by bass Joe Chappel, whose resounding low range and stately presence brought the royal power of Olympus to the stage.
Opera Omnia truly is doing a great thing, not only in fulfilling their mission of presenting baroque works in non-traditional ways, but in allowing these beautiful works and their timeless themes to speak their language of constancy to ever evolving generations of concertgoers and performers. The Return of Ulysses being only the company’s third production since its formation in 2008, I am looking forward to seeing their continued support and development, and to a greater frequency of works coming to the stage under the guidance of this talented core of individuals.