It is clear from the opening scene featuring a trio in flesh coloured gimp masks, that this is to be a bold, high-concept staging of Monteverdi’s opera.
For this fourth year of collaboration between English National Opera and the Young Vic, the dynamic duo has looked to Australian director Benedict Andrews to give his vision of this opera based on the second half of Homer’s Odyssey. Helped by set designer Börkur Jónsson he has created a starkly modern production that oozes with sexual charge and disturbing menace.
The action takes place within and around a revolving glass structure that dominates the Young Vic stage. This is Penelope’s home; it contains bed, shower room, kitchen and sofa all in the minimalist fashion of black, white and gleaming silver. The structure’s claustrophobic proportions and glass walls form a cage for this woman who is still waiting, after 20 years, for the return of her husband Ulisse from the wars.
Andrews’s vision includes a filmic element; two large screens either side of the stage project, in close up, the faces of some of the central characters. So while randy servants Melanto and Eurimaco flirt and frolic outside the glass, the screens home in on the emotional restlessness of Penelope, who is nearly always present on stage. Though not to everyone’s tastes, this device does help to enhance the claustrophobic nature of the production, emphasising the frustration and angst that Penelope must feel, surrounded, as she is, by people trying to persuade her to give up on her husband.
Among those are a trio of suitors, who grope, grab and slither their hands over Penelope as they try to make her succumb to the passions she has not indulged for 20 years. Likewise, the goddess Minerva is portrayed as a highly-sexed individual, a dangerous siren who teases and mocks as she manipulates events.
Of the cast, Pamela Helen Stephen is convincing as Penelope, expressing the conflict between her unswerving loyalty to Ulisse and her frustrated passions. As Ulisse himself – who returns to Ithaca in combat gear covered in desert dust – Tom Randle’s rich tenor gives gravitas and strength to the character who breathes morality back into his debauched palace. Katherine Manley as servant Melanto and Nigel Robson as Ulisse’s loyal friend Eumete provide strong support.
Though the story is familiar, it is difficult to follow the text without help from the programme notes, particularly some of the sub plots. Although the high concept sometimes gets in the way of clarity, it nevertheless provides a striking spectacle.
Throughout the production those glass walls become smeared first in fingerprints, then food, water and later, blood, as the story descends into a messy melange of lust, frustration and death. One thing’s for sure, they will need a fair bit of Windolene to clean it up.