Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ulysses"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by John Geoffrion

A World Premiere Opera

Review by John Geoffrion

Up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Players' Ring is taking a bold gamble with the opening production of their eighth season, an operatic adaptation of James Joyce's controversial masterpiece Ulysses. The ambition evidenced by the mere concept adapting the nearly eight hundred page novel into opera is staggering. But on the other hand, I'll warn you right off that the score is three hours of atonal polyphony – not a root chord to be found – and it does drag in places. But overall, it does succeed.

I must confess: I've never read Joyce, I've barely skimmed the Odyssey (on which the novel was based), I've never been to an opera, and my ears are not sufficiently trained to hear the different motifs expressed in the score. But I consider myself educated, intelligent, and literate enough to appreciate the enormous scope of this work, and I know enough of the book to appreciate just how well it does indeed adapt from the page to the stage.

Ulysses is a fairly loose adaptation of the Homeric legend of the Odyssey. The main character is Leopold Bloom, a Jewish immigrant, and the story follows his experiences as he wanders through the streets of Dublin on a June evening in 1904. Bloom's wife, Molly, is a popular singer, who is modeled after Penelope (wife of Ulysses) as well as Joyce's own wife, Nora. Paralleling Ulysses's son Telemachus is the young soldier Stephen Dedalus (the central character of another Joyce work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), modeled after the author himself.

The novel is an examination of the characters' thoughts, emotions, memories, and torments. Bloom is crippled by the memory of his father's suicide, his lust for his own daughter, the loss of his young son and his unhappy marriage. Dedalus is hounded by guilt over his mother's death. Molly is having an affair with her manager, Blazes Boylan. These characters are certainly not archetypes of wholesomeness, and neither is the novel. Ulysses was banned as obscene in the USA for decades, and the production brings every aspect to the stage: anti-Semitism, scatology, sexual activity described in intimate detail, etc.

Composer Roger Rudenstein, a Portsmouth resident, certainly seems to love challenging himself with ambitious undertakings. He has also produced his own adaptations of Faustus (adapted from Goethe and Marlowe and set in the present) and Jesus of Nazareth (portraying Jesus as a social rebel) at Symphony Space in New York City.

The cast is uniformly strong, but the principals in particular are worthy of mention. Venezuelan-born tenor Aurelio Dominguez is wonderful as Leopold Bloom, as is Murray Kidd as Stephen Dedalus, and Diana Jacklin as Molly. (Roger Jones, as Blazes Boylan, will trade roles with Dominguez after September 10)

Also worthy of merit is the three-piece orchestra, with music director Paul Merrill on piano, Gary Hodges on cello, and Elizabeth Thorpe on woodwinds. Gary Newton's staging and Barbara Newton's costumes also impress.

The Ring yet again is presenting an ambitious and courageous world premiere work. I recommend it, but be advised that the pace is slow, the subject matter controversial, and the score will be best appreciated by the sort of people who listen to Schoenberg or Bartok for fun.

Ulysses, from the novel by James Joyce, adapted and composed by Roger Rudenstein, playing through September 19th at the Players' Ring, 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth, NH. Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets $10. Call (603) 436-8123.

"Ulysses" (till 19 September)

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide