Turin `Ulisse' bored the ear, bedazzled the eye

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ulysses found himself in a sea of troubles recently when the late Luigi Dallapiccola's opera, ``Ulisse,'' opened here at the Teatro Regio. Shorn of ingratiating musical lines to sing, and burdened with a text that was both too long and too complicated to understand, Ulysses was cast ashore among some of the most controversial staging this rather liberal country has ever seen. Hindered by musical complexity ...

As revealed in this new production, which played through Dec. 21, Dallapiccola's musical score is highly structured throughout, both vocal lines and orchestral harmonies being based on the principles of 12-tone music. (While atonal music - that is, music without a tonal center or ``key'' - has been around for almost three-quarters of a century now, audiences in general and operagoers in particular have still not taken its style and technique to heart.)

One could argue that such writing seems effective and appropriate for moments of great conflict and turmoil, or scenes of the grotesque, but it hardly suggests the tranquil or amorous element. Thus, musically, the score of ``Ulisse'' is most effective during the scene in Hades, and the ultimate scene in which Ulysses confronts and kills Penelope's many suitors. It is least effective for solo arias (Calypso's ``Son soli, un'altra volta'' comes to mind), or in moments of passion (Circe's ``Ilmare'' is a good example). Vocal lines built out of tone rows tax the musicianship of soloists to the utmost, and leave the audience hungering for a memorable tune they can hum.

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```Ulisse' is the sum of my life's work,'' Dallapiccola told reporters in 1968 just before the opera's premi`ere at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Indeed, the legend of this ruler of Ithaca held a fascination for the composer from his early youth.

Dallapiccola elected to write his own libretto for the opera. Although he based it on Homer's ``Odyssey,'' he included excerpts and ideas from both Dante and the late 19th-century Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli. He also included philosophical musings of such diverse authors as James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

But Dallapiccola tried to present too vast a panorama. The ``Odyssey'' is too great in scope and detail to reduce to the dimensions of one evening of opera.

Dallapiccola's text not only includes scenes from all 10 years of sailing, but it also begins with a prologue that takes place before the 10-year voyage (at that moment in the legend when Ulysses refuses Calypso's offer of eternal youth). Then, Dallapiccola appends an epilogue that takes place after Ulysses has returned home to Ithaca. In it the composer waxes philosophical and suggests that Ulysses is one of literature's great wandering figures, a solitary, lonely individual eternally in search. But in search of what? For peace, the composer suggests, who then depicts the aged hero finally discovering it in a sense of the divine.

To further complicate matters, the composer specifies that, in several cases, two roles are to be sung by the same soloist, his idea being that one acts as a foil for the other: Calypso for Penelope, for example, or Circe for Melanto. ... rescued by brilliant staging

But despite the confusing nature of the story and the banality of most of the atonal music, the audience on opening night retained its interest because of the brilliance of the stage picture created by costumer/set designer/director Sylvano Bussotti. Although there are altogether nine scenes and three epilogues, there was a fluidity of movement from scene to scene. Panels and screens rose and fell into the floor; pillars, mountains, and sails moved in from the sides of the stage; sun, moon, and stars descended from above at appropriate times; lighting and rear projections changed the panorama at the back of the stage; Hades burned with awesome fury and all-enveloping smoke; and at long last, the sea glistened and glimmered magically in the moonlight as the aged Ulysses sailed off at the end of the epilogue. If the ear was bored by Dallapiccola's music, the eye was dazzled by Mr. Bussotti's imaginative staging.

For this visual feast, Bussotti had integrated many styles. ``After all,'' he has said, ``Ulysses is a universal figure, a hero for all time. Why then shouldn't the visual element represent this universality?''

The house curtain of sun, moon, and clouds was done in pop-art paper-cutout style. The royal apartment of Alcinoo (king of the Phaeacians) suggested art nouveau with its swirling arabesques encompassing brilliantly painted peacocks. Palace walls at Ithaca gave hint of Georges Roualt, with irregular broad black bands of paint outlining swatches of solid bright colors. Trees and bushes on the Isle of Ogygia recalled the Matisse of tissue-paper paste-ups. And, in the courtyard, fractured columns of the Doric order were offset against almost realistic brazures and statues of idols.

Not only did Bussotti do a masterly job with sets and costumes, he kept the action of the people on stage always moving, each gesture, each movement across the stage motivated by something suggested in the text or story. There was never a a static moment to interrupt the flow of action.

What produced the scandal of the evening - perhaps the scandal of the season - were two nude women (their flowing stolls draped across outstretched arms and shoulders hiding absolutely nothing) who emerged from the seething mass of monsters and ghouls in Hades.

The audience warmly applauded the soloists, chorus, and orchestra for the polished performance they gave this maddeningly difficult opera. But then again, the audience in Turin is among the most knowledgeable, sophisticated, and cultured to be found.

The Teatro Regio Orchestra - one of the best pit ensembles of any Italian opera house - played the score superbly, conductor Milan Horvat creating moods out of carefully shaped dynamic levels. He kept the orchestra in tight control, and helped the singers in every possible way to get through this complicated, complex score.

Of the rather large cast of principals, all were good to excellent. Baritone Martin Egel was the hero of the evening, both literally and figuratively, as Ulysses. Carla Basto was excellent in the dual role of Calypso/Penelope. Also among the better soloists were Fiorella Pediconi as Nausucaa, Andrea Snarski as King Alcinoo, Oslavio Di Credico in the dual roles of Demodoco and Teiresias, and Stella Silva as both Circe and Melanto.

The rest of the season at the Teatro Regio is devoted to more-traditional fare. Having opened in November with a new production of Wagner's ``Das Rheingold,'' a new production of ``Die Walk"ure'' will follow next May. The Italiana repertory is represented by a new production of Verdi's ``A"ida'' (Feb. 10 to March 19), and remounted productions of Puccini's ``Tosca'' (April to mid-May) and Verdi's ``Nabucco'' (in June). Rossini's ``Il Barbiere di Siviglia,'' in a production from the Cologne Opera, runs June 3-21.

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