Seattle's new chamber opera company, Pacific Operaworks, launches with a stunning "Return of Ulysses." Stephen Stubbs directs a dreamlike blend of sound, visuals and puppets. Review by John Sutherland.

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Opera Review |

The return of Stephen Stubbs to Seattle has reached a climax with the launching of his new company, Pacific Operaworks. Those who witnessed the maiden voyage Wednesday night of Monteverdi’s opera, “The Return of Ulysses,” will be congratulating themselves for years to come.

Stubbs has been home from his star-studded career in Europe for a couple of years now, but those years have been building up to this project. And the staging of this particular opera is an event in itself. It comes from South African artist William Kentridge (who also has an exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery), and is directed by Kentridge’s frequent collaborator, Luc De Wit. It also employs the skills of the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town.

The mix of arts is extraordinary. Every character has three bodies: the intricately carved wooden puppet, the puppeteer, and the singer. The instrumentalists perform on stage, blending with a beautiful wooden gallery, and behind the whole thing is a movie screen on which Kentridge provides a constant flow of images.

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We all know the story from Homer’s “Odyssey,” with Ulysses taking 20 years to come home from the Trojan War, finding his faithful wife, Penelope, fending off suitors. In this production, the entire story is presented as the dream of a dying, bed-bound Ulysses. The mesh of images, sometimes practical, sometimes comical, often jarring, is key to the dream effect.

It will come as no surprise that the musical portion is also sublime. Stubbs, both as director and player of the chitarrone (a stringed instrument related to the lute), specializes in this very literature. He leads a group that can only be described as all-stars, Seattle/international mainstays Margriet Tindemans and Ingrid Matthews among them.

The singers all do extra theatrical work with commendable flexibility; they need to roll with the puppeteers’ art while practicing their own.

The voices are all exquisite. Ross Hauck, who played Nero in “Poppea” two years ago, is pure and true in his singing of Ulysses. Penelope, the faithful wife who is not without her wiles, is sung with power and wit by Laura Pudwell. The suitors provide both great comedy and harmony, especially in their attempts to string the bow of Ulysses.

There is so much happening on stage, the eye and ear are forced into an efficiency that views the puppets as the characters, and what you’re left with is the essence of the story with very rich sonic and visual textures surrounding it. It’s performed without an intermission, and that’s a very good thing. It’s an amazing dream, and you won’t want to wake up in the middle.

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