18 Dec 2009
Pénélope in Manhattan
The one thing certain about the judgment of history is that history will change its mind.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
The one thing certain about the judgment of history is that history will change its mind.
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.