PÈnÈlope in Manhattan

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 FaurÈ’s
PÈnÈlope has failed to find an audience, one is apt to wonder why and
whether it is another candidate to join the canon.

FaurÈ 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 PÈnÈlope (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
FaurÈ, 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.

FaurÈ’s PÈnÈlope clearly sets up its personalities, both the
leading figures, faithful, anguished PÈnÈlope 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 FaurÈ 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. FaurÈ never notices when the
drama might call for such things — he is no showman. From situation to
situation in PÈnÈlope, 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 PÈnÈlope, 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 — FaurÈ 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 FaurÈ’s way of wandering from theme to theme,
doubling back and twining them again — of Act III of Tristan und
. But even that tone poem to a bedridden invalid includes a couple
of climaxes to vary the pace.

The title role of PÈnÈlope 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, PÈnÈlope 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 PÈnÈlope.

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 FaurÈ’s. Robert E. Mellon made a striking impression as the
gruff shepherd EumÈe — wasn’t he a swineherd in Homer? Several of
PÈnÈlope’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. PÈnÈlope 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

image_description=Penelope – Statue in the Vatican, Rome – Project Gutenberg eText 13725 [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Gabriel FaurÈ: PÈnÈlope
product_by=PÈnÈlope: Lori Guilbeau; EryclÈe: Victoria Vargas; Ulisse: Cooper Nolan; EumÈe: Robert E. Mellon. Conducted by Laurent Pillot. Manhattan School of Music, performance of December 9.