Opera Now Magazine – Ulysses Review


World Premiere – Ulysses
Laurence Roman
St John’s Church, Waterloo

Reviewed By Richard Fawkes

Composer Laurence Roman first thought of turning The Odyssey into an opera when he was a schoolboy. Thirty-five years later, Ulysses – A Musical Odyssey received its premiere as a community opera thanks to the Walled City Performing Arts Foundation, a major new charity set up to support young artists in the north west of Ireland. It opened at Thornhill College, Derry, played in Co Donegal and then in London.

Roman, professor of composition at the University of Ulster, calls the piece an opera. It may be through-sung but musically its attractive, pulsating score owes more to Les Mis and Sondheim than to Verdi or Puccini; Roman’s excellent word-setting frequently has the élan of Sondheim. Indeed, in 1995, a preliminary draft of the piece won the Vivian Ellis Prize for new musicals. In spite of the interest generated by that win, Ellis’s death the following year stalled thoughts of production – until now.

Telling the tale of Ulysses’s voyage home, it is necessarily episodic and each scene centres on a big choral number. A very talented 65-strong cast, drawn from Ulster University students and two performing arts schools in Derry and Co Donegal, deliver these choruses with great gusto, singing well, moving well.

Much fell on the shoulders of tenor John Porter in the title role. A 22-year-old student at the University of Ulster, he was barely off the stage, Porter is at the start of his professional career. He possesses a clear, lyric voice with no problems in the upper register – top notes were as easy as shelling peas. What he lacks at the moment is the sustained power to get his words over; too often he was inaudible.

Roman, who also directed this modern-dress production, handled the crowd scenes effectively but was less assured with the soloists. The huge on-stage forces were kept on a tight rein by conductor Sean Ryan, also from Ulster University’s music department, and a word of praise for the two outstanding pianists: Colin Norrby (himself a composer) and Atsushi Tamura.

This was an auspicious start both for the Walled City Foundation which looks set to make a major contribution to the musical life of Northern Ireland, and for Roman’s opera. With a few changes (particularly to the end which, despite the chorus being on-stage, closed with a duet), it could well secure itself a place on the community opera circuit.