Skip to main content

Carla Huhtanen and Isaiah Bell in The Return of Ulysses.Bruce Zinger/Opera Atelier

  • The Return of Ulysses
  • Opera Atelier
  • At the Elgin Theatre in Toronto
  • Through April 28

Canada’s opera scene is so young and so thinly spread across our large country that for a company to have a unique style of its own is a rare thing. Yet Opera Atelier’s productions, rooted in the performance practice of the 17th and 18th centuries, are immediately recognizable as the work of co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg.

The pair, with their staple designer of painted sets, Gerard Gauci, have such a cohesive vision that it’s almost polarizing. I have to admit I’ve seen Opera Atelier productions that leave me wanting something real and human, instead of the rhetorical gestures and representative characters that keep honest storytelling at arm’s length.

In a way, Opera Atelier’s productions say more about its audience than its artistic team. If you’re a theatregoer who craves fallibility, ugliness and subtlety, the company may not be for you. But if you go to the opera for beauty, emotional extremes and to see history come to life, OA is where all that resides.

In recent seasons, I’ve felt as though Pynkoski is attempting to better straddle these two aesthetic poles. Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses (1639), onstage now at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, finds an appealing balance of humanity, couched in OA’s notorious style. It’s certainly not a comedy, yet Pynkoski lets us have a few moments of comic relief (which he does very, very well).

Ulysses also has a consistently strong cast of singers, led by tenor Kresimir Spicer in the title role. His full-throated singing, thrilling even when it borders on shouting, makes for a likeable Ulysses, whose big emotional reactions – high and low – give him almost childlike endearment.

Spicer’s wide-eyed confidence finds a great foil in Mireille Lebel, appropriately a downer as Ulysses’s faithful wife, Penelope. True to its title, Monteverdi’s opera is full of dramatic tension and anticipation, the last of which comes in Penelope’s infuriating refusal to believe that the man in front of her really is Ulysses, come home at last. Lebel saves some sunshine in her voice, though, for her final duet with Spicer (a beautiful foreshadowing of the more famous Pur ti miro, at the end of Monteverdi’s final opera, The Coronation of Poppea).

Ulysses makes great use of a few Opera Atelier favourites. Carla Huhtanen is a refreshing dose of spice as Melanto, and Stephen Hegedus booms as Neptune; as Minerva, Meghan Lindsay sings with a curious colour in her sound, one that seems to turn on a dime from warm to dangerous.

And, it’s certainly about time that Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell sang for Opera Atelier. He makes his like-a-glove company debut in Ulysses, and his smooth sound is the first we hear.

The story comes with the oddly funny interference/aid of the gods. Mediterranean mythology, whether its authors realize it or not, is full of admissions about its own society; the gods, offended that there exist mortals who might not fully grasp how powerful the Olympians really are, insert themselves into human activity under varying pretenses, all versions of, “I’ll show them!” There’s insecurity even among the immortal, and that’s a fascinating cultural layer to peel back.

Monteverdi’s opera is more about humans than about gods. A woman struggles to stay faithful while she hopes for her husband’s return, and a man is intent on coming home and putting his house in order. The ending suggests a happy conclusion following two equal struggles by Penelope and Ulysses, but it’s really not. Ulysses is shipwrecked, sure, but providentially on his home shores; his efforts to make it safely back to his wife are made easier – and more dramatic – by his disguise, generously donated by Minerva herself.

Penelope, on the other hand, lives each day under the weight of a looming question mark. While she waits for her husband, who may or may not be alive, she is swarmed by rapey suitors (best sung by bass-baritone Douglas Williams, whose voice is fired with sex) who all seem to suggest that the cure for her blues is a little sexual healing. We see the extent of her mental efforts when Penelope is finally presented with the undisguised face of Ulysses. Judging from the slow release of her skepticism, the cost of getting her hopes up – and perhaps being disappointed – is unbearably high.

As far as stories of gods and exaggerated circumstances go, The Return of Ulysses is earthy and tangible. Opera Atelier’s production of the nearly 400-year-old opera is inevitably a glimpse into history, and there’s wonder in spotting not just what’s old about it, but what feels contemporary.