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Treachery and puppetry

Troupe director ties classic opera to real events

Peter Schumann portrays Penelope in Bread and Puppet Theater’s updated version of “The Return of Ulysses.’ Peter Schumann portrays Penelope in Bread and Puppet Theater’s updated version of “The Return of Ulysses.’ (Mark Dannenhauer)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2011

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Ulysses meets WikiLeaks in Bread and Puppet Theater’s latest production.

Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “The Return of Ulysses’’ caps off a weeklong residency by artistic director Peter Schumann’s troupe in the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, with evening performances through tomorrow. But this isn’t the traditional version of the opera, and not just because it features the troupe’s signature puppets and masks. Schumann has trimmed the production from three hours to 75 minutes and added a prologue that ties the brutalities of Ulysses against the Trojans to American actions in Iraq.

“We wanted [to link] the atrocities that the opera after all is about to modern atrocities, so we chose this WikiLeaks exposé of a helicopter of US soldiers going on a hunting party’’ in Baghdad, Schumann says. The text includes transcripts of cockpit chatter from the leaked video of a helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists, he says.

Despite that grim prologue, Schumann says the rest of the evening is music-centered and more upbeat.

“There’s so much playful beauty in there, just real beauty,’’ he says.

The “Ulysses’’ project began last year, when Schumann was asked to direct the opera for the Montreal Baroque festival. He brought theater students from Concordia University in Montreal to Bread and Puppet’s Glover, Vt., base to help prepare puppets and other elements. Then they returned to Montreal to rehearse the opera with professional singers and string players. But . . .

“The working morale of these musicians is something we don’t understand, something that I have very little liking for,’’ Schumann says. “They behave like masons. There’s a rehearsal schedule which says we are rehearsing from 7 to 11 p.m., and at 11 p.m. sharp, they pack up their wonderful voices into little silver boxes, and they walk away. That is unbearable! The students are, ‘No! We aren’t finished!’ But the professionals, they stuck to their schedules.’’

Schumann wasn’t thrilled with the venue chosen by the festival, either.

“They had the fancy idea that they wanted to do something extraordinary with that opera, not only to invite me to direct it, but to put it into some uncommon place, so they chose a sort of mall, a covered mall, a very awkward performance space, but a public space,’’ Schumann says.

After their performances, he returned to Vermont and spent the rest of the summer cutting and reshaping the opera. Bread and Puppet performed its version weekly through July and August in Vermont, and again in New York in December. Without the Montreal festival’s singers and musicians, he found unexpected stars in two troupe members, Greg Corbino and Susie Perkins, both Emerson College graduates.

“We were amazed to discover what great opera singers we have in the company,’’ Schumann says. “Greg is just enormous, and so is Susie.’’

Both had some voice training, but singing an opera role was a definite change. Corbino will also conduct the musicians and singers, who are mostly local volunteers. He notes with a laugh that only two full rehearsals were scheduled, the first on Tuesday night.

“I’m leading the choir and singing solo parts and playing the trumpet and playing the accordion,’’ says Corbino, 24. “So it’s really fun juggling all of these things and then watching the puppet show. . . . I get to see Bread and Puppet from a different place.’’

Schumann has been looking forward to the troupe’s fifth annual visit to the BCA. “You have to always invent your show anew when you come into the Cyclorama,’’ Schumann says. “The seating is difficult to figure out for the audience to see everything, but the opportunity of roaming and being vast and doing special movements is wonderful.’’

The visit also includes Schumann’s “NOLANGUAGE’’ art exhibit and matinee performances of Bread and Puppet’s “family friendly’’ show “Decapitalization Circus,’’ a fractured look at the role of capital in American life.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES

Presented by Bread and Puppet Theater at Cyclorama, Boston Center for the Arts, through tomorrow. Recommended for ages 12 and up. Tickets: $12. 617-800-9539, www.bcaonline.org