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Wolf Trap Opera's dynamic blast from past: Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses'

If you harbor any doubts about the ability of early opera to engage your senses the way the works of, say, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini do, you could get an easy attitude adjustment from a trip to the Barns at Wolf Trap. There, Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses is receiving a dynamic production from the Wolf Trap Opera Company. The final performance is Tuesday night.

Visually hip (but not overbearingly so), the staging, directed with abundant imagination and momentum by James Marvel, provides an engaging vehicle for a cast that treats the opera as if it were written last week, not in 1640. Yes, there was the occasional "white" tone favored by early music specialists, during Friday night's opening performance, but there was a lot of vibrant, sometimes downright Verdian singing, too, a lot of personality-filled phrasing from the young, energetic ensemble. No one held back. No one settled for history lesson primness. This was hot music-making, aided every step of the way by conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who maintained a telling pulse even as he allowed for exquisite, unhurried molding of the most lyrical passages.

In the title role of the Trojan War hero trying to return home, tenor Dominic Armstrong left a sizable mark. His phrasing invariably burned with import, so that every word communicated, and his solid tone rang out handsomely. Penelope, the stoic wife who has been waiting two decades for the return of Ulysses, provides the emotional and musical core of the opera. Monteverdi gave the character some of his most compelling melodic lines, and mezzo Jamie Barton made the most of them, singing with a lush, burnished tone and expressively nuanced detail. Like Armstrong, she sounded very much like a singer with a future. There was obvious potential, too, from tenor Diego Torre in the comic relief role of the gluttonous Iro. His portrayal was as lively as his vocalism, which revealed quite an impressive glint to go with the impassioned phrasing during Iro's suicidal aria near the opera's end. As Ulysses' son, Telemaco, Chad Sloan did not ...

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summon quite enough tonal weight for loud, high-lying passages, but the rest of the baritone's singing had a tender, subtle beauty. Another baritone, Daniel Billings, as Jove, served notice of a robust voice with considerable presence. Nicholas Masters, as Neptune, revealed a somewhat dry, limited bass, but sang with style and certainly looked cool (Andrea Huelse's costumes provide a fun mix of antiquity and downtown clubbing throughout the production). Jamie Van Eyck (Melanto) and David Portillo (Pisandro) sang brightly and jumped into the theatrical side of things with relish. Ava Pine sounded a little pale as Minerva, but proved expressive. Same for Paul Appleby's Eumete. Carlos Monzon (Antinoo) and Matthew Hanscom (turned out as an overly foppish Anfinomo -- one of director Marvel's less marvelous ideas) hammed things up mightily for the attempted wooing of Penelope. The orchestra of period instruments filled in the colors of the score with terrific finesse (Wedow devised a little extra coloring in places). 

Eric Allgeier's sleek set design was complemented by S. Katy Tucker's video projections, which introduced often striking imagery without ever getting gimmicky. The total package of engaging musicality and theatricality underlined how much power remains in this absorbing work from the dawn of opera.

PHOTOS BY CAROL PRATT COURTESY OF WOLF TRAP OPERA

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