IN Series’ brilliant ‘Return of Ulysses’ sings of veterans’ homecoming

New opera tells a story with great power not only thousands of years ago in Greek legend but in today’s forever wars.

Claudio Monteverdi composed his opera The Return of Ulysses, based on the latter portions of Homer’s Odyssey, in 1640. IN Series’ adaptation of this material is radical enough to be considered a new work. Its setting is America’s Vietnam War, melding Monteverdi’s music with popular and protest songs of the period and focusing on the sometimes fraught repatriation of veterans of that conflict to “the world,” as those of us who served in the military in those times often referred to the America we imagined we were coming home to.

In adapting the story, IN Series artistic director Tim Nelson cut some of Monteverdi’s characters and constructed a revised libretto incorporating interview material from returning Vietnam veterans and particularizing the trauma of combat veterans of any war — from Troy to Vietnam and onward to the present day — in the characters of Ulysses (Derek Chester) and Iro (Oliver Mercer). We first see Ulysses washed up on shore of a land he does not recognize as his own, the sound of waves overlapping a recording of John Kerry’s famous 1971 antiwar Congressional testimony. He is hunched up against a wall, shaped in Lawrence E. Moten III’s simple but stunning set design to represent the Vietnam Memorial.

Derek Chester (Ulysses) and Elizabeth Mondragon (Penelope) in ‘The Return of Ulysses.’ Photo by Bayou Elom.

Later, in Kathryn Lara Kawecki’s varied and effective costume design, his eyes are covered in a kind of khaki hoodie, both disguising him from others and shielding his eyes from an unfamiliar human landscape. Not until the final scene is his entire face and form visible and whole, as he is finally and fully returning home.

Ulysses’ first major human contact is with Iro, with whom his relationship is initially that of a drinking buddy, in a cheerful, but shadowed, first-act duet. Nelson’s handling of Iro is one of the most important aspects of this adaptation. In the original Monteverdi opera, and many productions since, Iro is a dissolute, rather Falstaffian character. Here, he is the embodiment of the effects of complex combat trauma — anger, violence, self-medication, self-destructive impulses — as well as dedication to his brothers in combat. Mercer’s rendition of Iro’s second-act song is a musical gem, leading to the character’s suicide, which in this version of the story becomes its dramatic center.

This leaves the eventual reunion of Ulysses and his wife, Penelope (Elizabeth Mondragon), as something of a coda, the reward for her years of steadfast and melancholy longing. Their passionate embrace is leavened by the comically erotic performance of choreographer Jitti Chompee’s three dancers (London Brison, Colette Krogol, and Matt Reeves) downstage in what Nelson calls “the dance of artificial skin,” dressed in costumes featuring pink balloons as placeholders for heads. The dancers appear in a variety of guises throughout the production. Sometimes they stand in for gods, other times appearing to physicalize characters’ emotional states, often adding an unsettling, occasionally grotesque emotional tone to the proceedings. Their masks were a highlight of the physical production.

A source of comedy in the otherwise intensely dramatic story are Penelope’s three suitors, led by Kevin Short, who try to gain her favor by giving her lame presents and then fail the sword-in-the-stone-like test of being able to string Ulysses’ bow. Iro then cuts the comedy short by shooting them dead, thereby, as Nelson notes, getting Ulysses off the hook for the murders (which in the Homer and Monteverdi version he commits), enabling a more peaceful reunion with his wife.

Scenes from ‘The Return of Ulysses.’ Photos by Bayou Elom.

Before Ulysses meets Penelope, he reunites with his son Telemaco (Elijah McCormack), who more quickly than his mother recognizes and embraces his father. Using a male soprano in the role, more often played by a tenor, was a fine casting choice that added an element of sweetness to the relationship.

It is a joy to see and hear first-rate opera singers in an intimate space like that of Source Theatre. Chester, Mondragon, McCormack, Mercer and the other cast members are all in fine voice, and they act their roles convincingly. Chester, Mercer, and Short often give a more rough-hewn tone to their singing than one often hears in Baroque pieces, completely appropriate to their characters. And I cannot say enough for the playing of Nelson’s nine-piece baroque orchestra, which is true not only to Monteverdi’s music itself but to Nelson’s baroque-style madrigal arrangements of 1960s songs.

If I have any quibble about the production, it is that, particularly in the first act, the words of off-stage and backstage singers were difficult to understand, and it was also unclear at times which characters they were meant to represent. In response to an audience question during Sunday’s talkback, Nelson said that it was an artistic choice not to use surtitles in an English-language production. While the emotional tone of what the characters were saying may have carried, it would have been preferable to have known what words they were saying.

In all its versions, this story is one of homecoming, a return of a man who has changed as the result of war to a homeland that has itself changed during his absence. Nelson’s subtitle, Song of My Father, has particular resonance for him, as his father was a Vietnam veteran, and IN Series deserves great credit for its outreach to veterans for this production. Stories of the departure and return of soldiers have great power not only thousands of years ago in Greek legend or 60 years ago in Vietnam, but in today’s forever wars. Such stories, as Nelson comments, are about second chances, seeing light after darkness, finding reason to hope that from death and decay life can suddenly again burst forth. The Return of Ulysses is a brilliant, innovative, and artistically successful take on this universal theme.

Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission.

IN Series’ production of The Return of Ulysses: Song of My Father is plays through May 27, 2024, at the Source Theater, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. It will also play May 31 to June 2, 2024, at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets are $30–$65. All tickets for veterans are $30. Tickets for Vietnam veterans are free, as are all tickets for veterans for the May 27 performance. DC tickets are available online here. Baltimore tickets are available online here. 

The digital program for The Return of Ulysses is available here.

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