By: Composer Claudio Monteverdi and librettist Giacomo Badoaro
At: Chicago Opera Theater at Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Phone: 312-704-8414; $35-$120
Runs through: April 7
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
Hey, Penelope: It's been 20 years since you've last seen your war-bound husband. Yet you're still faithful to him while living in a fabulous modern beachfront house, wearing sleek designer black gowns and entertaining an entourage of bling-bearing suitors?
Somehow, it's easier to believe Homer's ever-faithful Penelope's waiting for her husband in ancient Trojan War myths than you would about a war bride from today. Yet that's what director Diane Paulus does for Chicago Opera Theater's modern dress Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria ( The Return of Ulysses ) .
Perhaps it's TV's fault with its rich-bitch soap opera heroines constantly bed-hopping around when their leading man gets temporarily out of frame. Penelope's situation and fidelity seem harder to swallow, even if the modern-dress costumes help us to identify with the characters more than we would if they were draped in togas.
Unlike Paulus and conductor Jane Glover's brilliant past two COT opera productions that modernized Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Florida's South Beach and Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea in mob-run Las Vegas, this Ulysses doesn't fit comfortably in the drama of its abstractly modern digs. Yet don't let this shortcoming deter you from savoring everything else about this musically ravishingly and dramatically acted production of Monteverdi's 1640 opera ( the second-oldest regularly performed opera in the repertory ) .
Strong performances and distinct characterizations abound throughout the large and attractive ensemble. As Penelope and Ulisse, Marie Lenormand and Mark Le Brocq respectively illustrate all the necessary longing and pent-up passion built into librettist Giacomo Badoaro's contemplative text about love, fate and fortune. Robert Burt's corpulent suitor, Iro, is a comic delight, especially when played off Robin Leggate's ever-loyal shepherd Eumete. Fiona Murphy is a spunky and knowing goddess Minerva ( despite her ABBA-silver outfit ) while Nicholas Phan's handsome turn as the son, Telemaco, offers a lovely tenor voice.
Then there's the chief asset of the modern unit set by world-famous architect Rafael Viñoly ( whose credits include Philadelphia's Kimmel Center and the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business ) . With its sliding panels and undulating blue fabric waves, Viñoly's sleek boxy set easily switches locations in a snap, providing perches for the gods ( in comic book-looking costumes by Candice Donnelly ) or an elegant bath for a nude Penelope. Aaron Black's color-drenched lighting is also a great help.
So even if the modernization of The Return of Ulysses doesn't completely gel, so much else works in COT's sleek production that makes it still worth catching. Then there's the anticipation for next year when Paulus and Glover are both slated to tackle Mozart's Don Giovanni. Where they choose to set that notorious seducer's downfall should be plenty of fun.