Emma Morwood and Andrew Gavin – OCI The Return of Ulysses – Photo Credit Marshall Light Studio

The Return of Ulysses – Irish Times Review

Kilkenny Arts Festival

Monteverdi, Wagner and Berg are the great opera composers most grievously under-represented on stage in Ireland.

It’s interesting that Kilkenny Arts Festival’s outgoing director, Eugene Downes — an opera lover with his eye on a career in opera — engaged in a bid to bring Wagner’s Parsifal to his festival, and has now successfully teamed up with Opera Collective Ireland to present the first Irish production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, given as The Return of Ulysses in an English translation by Christopher Cowell.

There’s a sense in which a Monteverdi opera is a back-to-basics experience, but in the most positive of ways. Think of it as the musical equivalent of being fed by the world’s best chefs using just a clutch of the finest ingredients.

Director Patrick Mason’s approach is economical and direct. Set and lighting designer Paul Keogan’s steel and sandbag set has the strings and continuo players of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin arrayed around a circular performing area.

A gangway that floats mid-air is the realm of the gods and a ladder provides immediate access to the earth below. A tall bank of lights provides anything from flashes of lightning to propeller movements for Minerva’s flying chariot.

Catherine Fay’s costumes are storybook lucid, a shepherd with a staff, a glutton who looks as if he is about to burst out of his three-piece suit, Human Frailty as a homeless man. Mason and his team have ensured that there is nothing on stage to get in the way of the narrative or the music.

Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy brings an elemental life force to the title role, as he struggles with the power of the gods, the threats of human adversaries and the initial reluctance of his wife Penelope to acknowledge that his is genuinely her long-lost husband.

Mezzo soprano Raphaela Mangan’s Penelope is more reserved, even enigmatic, sometimes uncomfortable, until the moment of recognition when she blossoms in the joy of reunion.

Also impressive in the 14-strong cast are the vocally agile Ross Scanlon as the gluttonous Iro, the always sure and centred Rory Musgrave as the shepherd Eumate, and the eager Andrew Gavin as Telemaco, with the bright interventions of Emma Morwood’s Minerva functioning well at crucial turning points.

On the opening night I got the impression that the experienced hand of conductor Christian Curnyn had not yet fully imbued the singers with the niceties of Monteverdian declamation, something which, of course, is always more difficult to render persuasive in English than in the original Italian.

Kilkenny Arts Festival Friday 7pm and Sunday 3pm;

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Friday, September 7th, and Saturday, September 8th;


Emma Morwood – OCI The Return of Ulysses – Photo Credit Marshall Light Studio

The Return of Ulysses – Bachtrack Review

A gripping Return of Ulysses from Opera Collective Ireland and the Akadamie für Alte Musik

By , 9th September 2018


Performances of Monteverdi operas in Ireland are far less frequent than blue moons (around once a decade) but far more gripping and luminous as last night’s performance demonstrated. This was a happy and fruitful collaboration between Opera Collective Ireland and the Akadamie für Alte Musik delivering a thoroughly convincing interpretation of Monteverdi’s masterpiece The Return of Ulysses.

Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the opera recounts the story of the return home of the eponymous hero ten years after the end of Trojan war. Despite the passage of time and three persistent suitors who try to convince her of her husband’s demise, Penelope remains faithful to Ulysses. Penelope promises to marry the suitor who can string Ulysses’ bow. After failing miserably, the three unwanted suitors are dispatched to the next world by Ulysses while he eventually convinces his wife as to his true identity by describing in detail their marital bed. Penelope’s recitative style comes to an end as she bursts forth into a song of joy and love.

Director Patrick Mason delivered an effective modern take on this 17th-century work. Updated to the 1940s, the suitors are mixture of army officers and dapper gentlemen-about-town; Telemaco, Ulysses’ son, is part of the RAF; Minerva’s flying chariot becomes an aeroplane; and the gods are impeccably dressed aristocrats. Mason’s modernising vision of the work did nothing to disturb either text or music but rather added a vibrancy and immediacy that was thoroughly convincing.

Set and lighting designer Paul Keogan cleverly integrated the strings and continuo players of the Akadamie für Alte Musik around a small circular area where the main action takes place. A steel platform in midair represents Mount Olympus, the realm of the gods which was connected to earth by a set of stairs. The tall post of lights was as effective as it was versatile: a flash of lightning indicated an omen from the gods, while a spinning pattern ingeniously suggested the propellers of Minerva’s plane.

The singers ranged from very good to outstanding. First up, the depth and power of Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy’s voice brought a magisterial quality and grandeur to his Ulysses. Here was one who sung convincingly and with great emotional depth of the despair and anger with his fate, the struggles with the gods and his wife’s resistance to see him for who he really is.

Raphaela Mangan’s Penelope captured the reserve and the emotional distance of her character very well, declaring her honourable intentions with pellucid diction. Her voice only opened fully at the end when she was restored to love.

There were many highlights among the rest of the cast with soprano’s Emma Morwood’s Minerva casting a spell with her golden voice while Ross Scanlon’s brilliant comic timing ensured an enjoyable relief as the sybaritic Iro. Rory Musgrave’s Eumete pleasing baritone was always surefooted as the shepherd while Andrew Gavin’s Telemaco brought a filial enthusiasm and earnestness to his part. The three suitors, countertenor Eoin Conway, tenor Andrew Boushell and baritone Brendan Collins demonstrated great vocal agility and comedy in their slimily insidious roles.

A final note must go to the excellent musicians of Akadamie für Alte Musik under the thoughtful direction of conductor Christian Curnyn who provided a finely varied and sensitively balanced continuo for the singing cast. Let’s hope that we don’t’ have to wait so long for the next return of Ulysses!



Ghosts in a Garden

Ghosts In A Garden – Review

RBGE Palm House
Sun 23 April 2014
Review by Thom Dibdin

★★★★   Concept comes good

Idiosyncratic and intriguing, the Love In A… series of pop-up operas staged around Edinburgh out of season by the International Festival always seemed like a great idea.

The first year saw a song-cycle based around literary themes, with soprano Emma Morwood and lyric tenor Chris Elliott falling for each other in libraries and book shops.

Last year a second, botanical, theme was added – with Emma and Chris’s love burgeoning among the flower beds of the Botanic’s new John Hope Gateway – among other places.

And this third year, to help mark the commemoration of the First World War which will be a major theme at this August’s EIF, series director Sally Hobson has introduced a new song cycle: Ghosts In A… which reflects on courage, love and loss, around times of war.

The new cycle was premiered at the Edinburgh Botanics on Sunday, in the towering Palm House amidst palms and banana trees, orchids and giant ferns.

And in one fell swoop, the good idea – which could at times feel a shade worthy and a little forced – stepped right up into the realms of perfection.

Everything has come together in this latest incarnation. Choice of music, its presentation, the use of words with that music, the publicity surrounding it – and thus the expectations of the audience – are all just right.

The music choice is exemplary in terms of bringing the echoes of war, through a deep sense of loss. Blow the Wind Southerly, the opening setting of Whittaker’s poem to Shostakovich’s music, encapsulates the longing of a girl waiting in hope but with reconciliation, for her lover to return from the sea.

With Chris Elliott, dressed in a period military uniform already hidden amidst the leaves of the Palm House, Emma Morwood in the flowing grey dress of a WW1 nurse, gives a long, wistful performance of the song as she changes cloak for apron, a nurse preparing for a day on the wards.

With little more than their costumes and a pair of shell boxes used as seats by way of staging, the pair go on to create a sense of the forlornness of hope, in songs with words by the likes of Yeats, Donne and Shakespeare set to music by Dunhill, Schubert, Britten and Mahler.

Between the songs, they read extracts of diaries and letters from nurses and soldiers at the front. These brief, matter-of-fact descriptions of the banal horrors of life in the trenches speak of the reality to which the music provides an emotion and colour.

The setting is superb for a recital such as this. The high-rising Palm House is acoustically stunning, perfect for voice and piano. And the lush leaves and orchids are so unlike anything the trenches could ever be, that they give the two singers and pianist Andrew Brown an even greater sense of being a ghostly presence.

Even the tang of soil in the air, the smell of this lush and verdant place, so unlike the stench of trench warfare, is a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. And when a songbird joined Morwood in her rendition of Mahler’s Ulricht, the serendipity was breathtaking.

Morwood has a joyously clear voice – perfect for this intimate style of performance where she is in among her audience. Close up, you can feel the power she is holding back, and yet her voice soars with a delightful lightness of tone.

Elliott doesn’t hold back his power quite as much; his is a dominating voice at times, but one which is able to reign in for more complex passages such as Britten’s music for Since she whom I loved by John Donne.

Instead of only announcing the events through social media 24 hours before, the whole season is now announced in advance. It’s still a pop-up event, music in an unexpected place, but there is an extra tension of expectation about it.

Ghosts in a Garden had its own, unique frisson. When the cycle is repeated as Ghosts in Gallery in Surgeon’s Hall, the Scottish National Gallery, the National Museum and the Portrait Gallery, these places with their own significant ghosts of war will no doubt bring their own unique perspectives.

Running time 30 mins.
Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
Sunday 23 March 2014.
Run ended.

Ghosts in a Gallery returns May 17/18, June 21 & 29, July 15 & 29, and August 7 2014. Details below.

Love in a… returns on April 30 and various dates to July 2014. Details below.