ALTHOUGH IT STANDS as a paradigm of a Gesamtkunstwerk, opera has largely relegated the visual arts to only a subsidiary role: as costume, scene, and setting, both literal and figurative background to the expressive voice. In William Kentridge’s multimedia production of Monteverdi’s 1640 masterwork Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (which premiered in New York in March), this hierarchy is undone. For here, as in several other theater productions he has directed (Ubu and the Truth Commission, 1997; Woyzeck on the Highveld, 1992; Faustus in Africa!, 1995; Zeno at 4 a.m., 2001), Kentridge does not so much clothe the opera in a particular visual style as draw out and transfigure its genre-specific resources—the cleaving of the empirical body from the dramatic voice, the tension between the aria that explores a single theme and the recitative that pushes the narrative along—into vehicles for the themes his
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