What a hoot, this DNO production of Handel’s last opera! The story itself simply invites wacky treatments: Ulysses arrives at an island, looking for Achille, who in fact is dragging it up and hiding among the girls of the court, placed there by his father in order to avoid the looming war in Troy. Daughter of the local king, Daidamia, is something of a girlfriend to him when they’re alone. When there are other girls around, he makes some cursory effort to pass as one of them.
Ulysses and the Greeks come up with a number of cunning plans in order to make Achille reveal his gender. One includes Ulysses making a pass at him, hoping to witness a freakout, but Achille/Pirra holds steady. Another one includes monitoring Achilles’ behaviour during a hunt, but the one that succeeds involves parading the girly goodies and the boyish toys before the girls and watching what Achilles goes for more ardently. If this sounds like the But I am a Cheerleader, Ma Vie en Rose, or any other youth gender confusion films from the last two decades, it’s because the story really reads that contemporary.
David Alden’s witty direction makes it even more so. The domain of the girls is a a sort of Esther Williams cum Grease cum Virgin Suicides corner of a big mansion by a body of water. The Greeks are a bit thuggish, with an imperial attitude, their costumes a combinationof Ancient Greece and Hells Angels. Ulysses is the most polished one, with the most impressive armour and the elegant leather getup. He’s also the chief schemer. Silvia Tro Santafe plays him really well through his numerous attempts at seduction and the warmongering speeches about glory and fate. Her timbre is not quite my kind of thing, but her acting makes me forget that. Sally Matthews as the princess in love with Achilles has all the prettiest arias, but also probably the toughest scene of all, the one in which she sings and dances wearing but a swimsuit. She pulls it all off beautifully. Soprano Olga Pasichnyk is a revelation as Achille: she makes the fast, light coloratura and jock masculinity two coins of the same gender. Oh yeah, did I mention the comedic talent too? Somebody to watch out for.
Ivor Bolton conducts the ever capable and energetic Concerto Köln. There is an entertaining documentary in the DVD’s Bonus material in which David Alden describes the collaboration between him and Bolton as the one between a madly inspired and a practically hysterical (himself). One side needs to be reasonable in any good partnership, or so he assumed until he started working with Bolton. They’re both always on overdrive, but somehow it’s working. He’s right. This is a production bursting with energy and good ideas.
Things get a little eventful on the island: Silvia Tro Santafe (Ulysses) and Sally Matthews (Deidamia). Screen capture.