Benedict Andrews on “The Return of Ulysses”

The Return of Ulysses depicts a culture of trauma. The aftershocks of the destruction of Troy are still felt in Ithaca. The distant war is coming home. The myth has two distinct emotional centres, orbiting each other – Penelope longing for Ulysses, and Ulysses, a stranger in his own home. We become voyeurs into their lives, watching – in extreme close up – the agony and hunger of their waiting.

Penelope has been waiting for Ulysses’ return from war for over a decade. Most people around her believe that she should accept his death and move on – take another lover or get married for the sake of her emotional health and the political fate of her kingdom. She experiences life as if it were a becalmed ship on the sea. She can’t go back or can’t move on. Time for her is frozen yet filled with burning longing. Melanto accuses her of being addicted to grief mixed with an unfulfillable, erotic craving. Penelope is in a state of suspension – unable to claim the happy life she knew before the war, unable to properly mourn her missing husband. She is consumed with intense longing, the agony of waiting, the drug of remembrance.

Ulysses is an alien in his own life – a damaged soldier returned from war. He washes up on the shores of his old life without recognising his homeland. He suffers from amnesia. His reality is splintered. He’s no longer certain what’s real, whether he’s dreaming or awake. Inhabiting this borderline where reality and dream blur, he meets the goddess Minerva disguised as a boy. He learns that he has returned home, and he enters home transfigured into an old man – an outcast, the lowest in society. Unrecognizable to his family, friends, servants, even himself, Ulysses the wanderer wears the shadow of death. From war and from his odyssey, he carries a buried violence which explodes when he kills the suitors transforming his former home into a slaughter house – bringing the war home.

The tension of the opera lies in waiting: the agony of Penelope’s waiting versus the ticking bomb of Ulysses’ violence. After the the trauma, damage, and misrecognition, these two protagonists, who have been sharing the stage but never united, finally meet each other and sing together. When at last they recognise each other, they sing of love, transcendent joy and spring renewal. The wealth of their homeland is based on the distant war which has been flickering away on the television. The cost of that war can no longer be hidden at home. A cycle has ended. Their intense love suggests a way out of the damage. A glimpse of a new time. It is a bruised, hard won love belonging to lovers who have lost each other, lost themselves, yet finally come home to the harbour of one another. They offer a love which recognises human frailty.

Benedict Andrews