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Penelope - Statue in the Vatican, Rome - Project Gutenberg eText 13725 [Source: Wikipedia]
18 Dec 2009

Pénélope in Manhattan

The one thing certain about the judgment of history is that history will change its mind.

Gabriel Fauré: Pénélope

Pénélope: Lori Guilbeau; Eryclée: Victoria Vargas; Ulisse: Cooper Nolan; Eumée: Robert E. Mellon. Conducted by Laurent Pillot. Manhattan School of Music, performance of December 9.


The standard operatic repertory today is not the standard repertory of fifty years ago — when such now popular works as Idomeneo, Maria Stuarda, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Semiramide, Katya Kabanova and Les Troyens were obscure or unknown, and Handel, Cavalli and Monteverdi languished in scholarly footnotes. Today, therefore, when so carefully composed a work as Fauré’s Pénélope has failed to find an audience, one is apt to wonder why and whether it is another candidate to join the canon.

Fauré was almost new to the opera game when, at sixty-two, he was finally attracted to a libretto, and it took him six summers (he was busy at the Conservatoire most of the year) to complete the piece. My conclusion, however, after attending the New York premiere of the work at the Manhattan School of Music, a performance by an orchestra of remarkable professionalism, sung by attractive young voices, is that the composer did not possess a gift for the theatrical among his many great talents. There is much beauty here, especially in the orchestration, but very little excitement.

It is interesting to contrast Pénélope (of 1913) with its near contemporary, Vincent d’Indy’s Fervaal, a work of 1897, also brought to Paris in 1913, and introduced to New York last October. Like Fauré, d’Indy was an academician under Wagnerian shadow in his choice of ancient legend, his use of leitmotiv and his rejection of closed forms within the grand arc of a scene. But d’Indy’s impossible epic contains no personalities — the leading characters declaim at each other, but in his musical setting, have no humanity. We never know who these people are, prolix though they be; the music never makes them individual. On the other hand, the burly chorales, the “Druidic” ceremonies, the tone poems that set the various scenes contain thrilling music of high quality.

Fauré’s Pénélope clearly sets up its personalities, both the leading figures, faithful, anguished Pénélope and the disguised, yearning Ulisse, and minor figures are individuated, often entertainingly — but very little of the music packs a punch. We are never brought to the edge of our seats, much less inclined to jump out of them. Not only does Fauré reject closed forms (arias, duets), he also rejects ensemble — his characters never indicate their relationships or inner thoughts by singing together. True, Wagner denounced the excesses of such things, praising the “drama” of individual speech, but, being Wagner, he ignored his own injunctions as soon as a duet or a quintet seemed to be required. Fauré never notices when the drama might call for such things — he is no showman. From situation to situation in Pénélope, all is dignity and refinement — the thing plods, though beautifully. This is not a work of stagecraft, of variety, and it will not follow Les Troyens, for example, a work packed with vivid character and incident, into popular favor.

What we have here, then, in Pénélope, is a stately piece on an ancient, stately story. The orchestration is exquisite, and the Manhattan School of Music orchestra, which has sometimes offered dodgy renditions of complex scores, played this one lovingly, with impressive polish and attention to detail under Laurent Pillot, who plainly loves this score. The vocal lines, too, are well placed — Fauré could express deep emotion without straining the voice to extremes, a skill lacking in many composers who dabbled in opera. But the music rarely becomes fast or loud or agitated, even when one of the characters is murdering several of the others. I found myself thinking — and not only because of Fauré’s way of wandering from theme to theme, doubling back and twining them again — of Act III of Tristan und Isolde. But even that tone poem to a bedridden invalid includes a couple of climaxes to vary the pace.

The title role of Pénélope was taken by Lori Guilbeau. From the buzz around me opening night, I gather she is much prized at the school as their budding dramatic soprano. She has a pretty, sizable voice, easy in its production though immature at fortissimo. Her soft singing was beautiful, her diction clear, and though her figure is robust, she is a handsome woman with a dignified stage presence — opera producers are no longer tolerant of singers who cannot move, and Guilbeau gives evidence that the Manhattan School takes such things seriously when launching careers. Too, Pénélope is just the sort of music she should be singing at this stage — her mid twenties. She should not sing heavy dramatic parts for another decade, while her body and her control over it both mature, but she was joyously received in Pénélope.

Tenor Cooper Nolan sang Ulisse with beautiful phrasing and without strain. Frankly, his situation could have used some strain now and then, but the fault there was Fauré’s. Robert E. Mellon made a striking impression as the gruff shepherd Eumée — wasn’t he a swineherd in Homer? Several of Pénélope’s obnoxious suitors sang quite well, but it was difficult to tell them apart.

Martin T. Lopez’s set was cleverly compartmentalized, with different levels and segmented rooms so that the story could move without pause and without the need to change scenes. Attractive scrims covered areas that could be lit to reveal iconic or choral personages. Pénélope sang much of her part through the warp of a loom at which she was supposedly weaving the famous tapestry she unraveled each night, Ulisse sang his role through a mask (being in disguise until the climax). My only real quibble with Lawrence Edelson’s admirably simple and clear staging concerned the bow — the suitors are supposed to find it impossible to string the bow, which Ulisse does do, thereupon assaulting them with arrows. Is no one at Manhattan School aware of what stringing a bow means? It was already strung, giving the suitors nothing to do but sing at it, and there were no arrows at all.

John Yohalem

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