It would be difficult for Ulysses to return, as he is scheduled to do nearly two hours and 30 minutes into Monteverdi's opera, The Return of Ulysses. Because, with Portland Opera's shockingly inept production, Ulysses never really shows up in the first place.

The production is hollow, the musical level is generally mediocre and the performances range from bland to overblown (with one major exception). The singers, mostly members of Portland Opera's new Studio Artist program for emerging opera singers, play roles they'd not likely be hired to perform with any other professional company. This is a shame, especially considering the inflated $75 ticket price. It is also a missed opportunity.

Ulysses is not an easy opera to produce, and presents considerable musical and theatrical challenges. Ulysses chronicles the wartime reunion of two long-lost lovers, Penelope (Kenda Herrington) and Ulysses (Christopher Clayton). After years at war, Ulysses returns, disguised as a beggar, to win Penelope back from a group of suitors—he strings the great bow of Ulysses, kills the suitors, and they elope into the sunset.

Director Kristine McIntyre's staging chooses style over substance, often lapsing into the ridiculous (Ulysses' murdering of the suitors earned a good laugh). The set is attractive: an empire in ruins. The costumes are attractive, too, but also occasionally hilarious: Neptune strides onstage in leather chaps and a glittery fishnet tank top.

Kendra Herrington gave the one outstanding performance, as Penelope. Herrington is a gifted actress with a lovely, expressive face.

Other cast members were hit and miss. As the god Jove, Jan Kolbet appears in a laughable sprinkle of gold glitter and goes about his cute, highly mannered business with aplomb. Heath Rush, as Ulysses' prep-school-dressed son Telemaco, looked a bit like Nathan Lane but acted as if stoned. And it's clear Christopher Clayton, as Ulysses, has studied the great buffo baritones of years past: He's adopted their most tired gestures and posturing. Clayton has a promising voice that encompasses two volume levels, a whisper or a bellow.

Robert Ainsley conducted from the harpsichord and organ and is a capable keyboard musician, but his training is not in historically informed performance—musical interest sagged where it should have sparkled. One also wished he had insisted on more in-tune recitative singing—Rush and Amy Jo Halliday (who played multiple roles) were persistent wanderers.

It is unfortunate that Portland Baroque Orchestra, who I occasionally perform for (admitting, folks, not bragging), could not be tapped for this production—the two organizations have collaborated previously. If you don't have the appropriate conductor or musicians on board, why bother?

The Return of Ulysses

at the Portland Opera Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Dec. 8, 12, 14 and 16; 2 pm Dec. 10. $75, $10 student rush (limited availability).