Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 2
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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University Shows-off Its Music Students With Rarely Performed Monteverdi Opera

Nancy Plum

There is a lot going on in Princeton University classrooms, and occasionally the public gets to listen in. This past weekend, the Music Department’s Music 214 class showed the fruits of its fall 2008 semester labors with a fully staged and costumed production of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1641 opera The Return of Ulysses. Even though augmented by a few pros, Friday and Saturday night’s performances in Richardson Auditorium easily demonstrated the depth of vocal talent in the student body.

Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses) is one of a very few operas which have survived from Monteverdi’s time. Monteverdi significantly advanced the operatic form, including assigning specific instruments to parts and illustrating the plot with melodic and musical effects. All operatic productions are open to interpretation by the director, but Monteverdi himself probably did not have in mind the clever and timely staging of Music 214’s production by Andrew Eggert.

Mr. Eggert set this production in a time warp of the early 20th century — crossing boundaries between World War I and the flapper era. The character of Human Frailty (sung with eloquence and wisdom by Eric Schlossberg) sets the stage in a war hospital, tormented by Time, Fortune and Love, dressed as a doctor and two nurses. Ulysses has clearly been to war and Penelope waits for him with her flapper-dressed and tuxedoed companions who from time to time break into roaring 20s dances, in a Monteverdimeets-the-Great-Gatsby atmosphere. Mr. Eggert saw a link between the early 20th century and the time of the Trojan War — a setting which gave the performers a bit of familiarity and was appealing to the heavily student audience on Friday night.

Humor aside, this was difficult music, and this production demonstrated how thorough the Music 214 class was in its preparation. Almost all of the roles were sung by students reaching well beyond their years in vocal demands and expression. Singing the role of Ulysses, senior Adam Fox showed remarkable vocal richness and color for someone of his age, combined with a mature and natural acting style.

Monteverdi’s music well preceded the languid Romantic 19th century aria, and emotions were expressed by musical effect and conveyance of the text. Soprano and Princeton junior Alexis Rodda sang the role of Penelope with richness and feeling, and with clear diction that was especially effective when accompanied by the theorbo. Ms. Rodda maintained the melodic lines through the long vowels of the text, which helped move the dialog along, and she effectively brought out the musical word-painting on such words as “pain.”

The two meatier tenor roles of the opera were allocated to non-students; University Lecturer David Kellett sang the role of Emmaeus the shepherd with a relentless protectiveness of Penelope. The register and musical style of this role clearly foreshadowed the operatic vocal style of such later composers as Handel, and Mr. Kellett was effective in maintaining the required stamina. Tenor Kim Scown, a veteran of opera houses worldwide, performed the character role of Irus with humor, precision, and timing.

Secondary roles were also well handled by students. Maya Srinivasan proved that she would have a great musical career as an operatic soubrette, with a sparkling voice and stage personality. Her love interest, Eurymachus, was sung by Spencer Case with a light tenor and a preppie stage presence that suit the role well. Junior Anupama Pattabiraman sang the role of Penelope’s companion Ericlea with diction that spoke well in the hall. Ms. Pattabiraman later performed double duty as a “Phaeacian Sailor,” forming a nice vocal trio with Tim Keller and Dan Corica.

The opera was accompanied by a very small ensemble of instruments, including two harpsichords, a lute, and a theorbo, a bass lute which had long been used to accompany the solo voice by Monteverdi’s time. Theorbo player Daniel Swenberg also played a type of guitar during the course of the opera. Conductor Michael Pratt maintained solid control over the ensemble and he himself contributed a small percussion part.

Given that several of the students had double roles, costume designer Marie Miller was kept busy clothing the cast in World War I and 1920s ensembles, some of which brought bright colors to the stage. Sets were sparse, with furniture cleverly brought on and off stage, and lighting was effective and precisely done.

As with operas of this time period, this production was long, but was very tightly put together. Ending a show after 11 probably seemed like midday to the Princeton students and to see the challenge undertaken by members of this class was more than worth the wait.

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