Review: The Return of Ulysses

Chicago Opera Theater kicked off their 2007 season last night with a fantastic new production of a 400-year-old opera. (Think about that for a minute–how cool is it to see an opera written in 1640?) Unless you’re averse to 17th-century music, I can’t think of a reason not to highly recommend Ulysses. Strong performances (with equal parts great acting and singing), inventive direction by Diane Paulus, gorgeous lighting design, and a deceptively simple set really brings this production to life.

The story is taken from Homer’s Odyssey and concerns Ulysses’ return after twenty years away fighting in the Trojan war. His faithful wife Penelope (an outstanding Marie Lenormand) grieves for his return, surrounded by drunken suitors all vying to win her hand. Orchestrated by the gods, Ulysses disguises himself as a beggar to safely make the final leg of his journey home.

The set is a standout, created by world renowned architect Rafael Vinoly who designed the recently completed the Graduate School of Business at the U of C. His set of multi-level, interconnected white boxes and stairways subtly transforms from an island into a palace and then a mountainside, awash in lush colors of light that paint a beautiful scene. Folding doors allow for dramatic entrance and exit, and a trap door in the stage functions as Penelope’s bath and then a roiling cavern that swallows up a man. The entire island set is placed on material that billows from beneath to simulate waves lapping the shore and creates a particularly beautiful effect when combined with dry ice.

Across the board, the singing and acting is top notch. Lenormand’s Penelope has a strong, clear voice that beautifully conveys her misery and commands the stage each time she sings. Robert Burt makes the most of his rollicking role as the gluttonous Iro. To single out others, would really mean listing the entire cast.

The score by Claudio Monteverdi sounds wonderful coming from a small pit of musicians playing on period instruments. (Including not one but two of these amazing looking stringed instruments!) There are only four more performances, currently running at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. (COT information here.)

Next on the COT program: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle starring Samuel Ramey!

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