Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2015
Patrick Davin, Olivier Py, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Marc Laho, Élodie Méchain, Sarah Laulan, Kristina Bitenc, Rocío Pérez, Francesca Sorteni, Lamia Beuque, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Martial Defontaine, Mark Van Arsdale, Arnaud Richard, Camille Tresmontant
ARTE Concert - October 2015
Rarely performed, Fauré's 1913 opera Pénélope has the reputation of being one of those old-fashioned works that no longer has a place on the modern stage. The start of the twentieth century has proved something of a wilderness for lost operas, with many of those works of post-Romanticism and verismo attempting to prolong the opera tradition never really taking hold. The horrors of the Great War would soon make much of the opera compositions of this period irrelevant when set against a changing and increasingly dissonant musical landscape. A few works are only now beginning to regain a foothold, and although Fauré's Pénélope is perhaps not yet one of them, it is certainly an opera that has been unjustly neglected if this fine new production at the Opéra National du Rhin is anything to go by.
One of the main criticisms levelled against Pénélope to account for its obscurity is that the libretto is rather wordy and not terribly dramatic. The story of the return of Ulysses 'in patria' may be Classical in origin, but as Monteverdi shows and as is evident in the rarity of Gluck's Telemaco, the story is by no means inherently lacking in dramatic conflict or emotional resonance that can be heightened for an opera. It is true that René Fauchois' libretto for Fauré does have a lot of recitative and not a great deal of dramatic action for at least the first third of the work. Much of this first Act consists of little more than Penelope's suitors pressing their case for her hand in the absence of her husband Ulysses who hasn't returned from the Trojan war. Without really involving the principals, the suitors presenting their case at length to Penelope's handmaidens, it's a slow start that doesn't really engage the audience.
There's not a great deal that director Olivier Py can do with this, but he makes an effort to make it work on the stage by at least introducing Ulysses into the drama during the overture. Py recognises that Ulysses is the key to unlocking the emotional heart of the work (which is Penelope), and shows the returned warrior early enough for you to recognise what is at stake and what his imminent return will mean for both of them. Py actually does a lot more than this, but he does so without introducing any extraneous elements or imposing any obvious conceptual twist on the work. It's actually a surprisingly faithful adaptation.
What's is impressive about Py's direction here is the faith he has in the work itself. He clearly doesn't feel that it needs to be reworked and reinterpreted. He doesn't attempt to bring any great drama out of the opera for the sake of stage presentation either, but trusts in the quality of the music itself to makes its presence felt. And he's right to do so. Musically Pénélope is not a forcefully driven piece, but rather more like a Debussy mood piece; wistful and floating, the music constantly shifts as if taking the part of the confused Penelope herself, building itself up like the lace tapestry she is sewing before undoing all the work and starting again.
Yet it can also be forceful and insistent, which corresponds with the attitude and behaviour of the suitors, and there's an edge of desperation too in Penelope's holding on to the belief that Ulysses will return. There's also undoubtedly an erotic charge behind these emotions on the sides of both parties, along with all those suggestions of delayed gratification in the completion of the tapestry, but it's hard to really say you get a sense of that from Fauré's music itself. The music does have a sensuous quality, but it also has a slightly sinister and unsettling edge that is brought out and highlighted here by Py showing the suitors pawing over Penelope's handmaidens and scarcely able to keep their hands off the Queen either.
For all the criticisms of the libretto then, Pénélope is by no means unworkable as a staged opera production. Other than the slowness of the first act and rather too much time given over to filling out the roles of the suitors and other secondary characters, the libretto is actually quietly suggestive and poetic in how it explores the situation and builds tensions and mood around it. Although very different musically, it's hard not also to think of Hofmannsthal's libretto for Strauss' Elektra, in how it sustains a similar dark foreboding, in how it plays out the arrival and recognition scenes, and in how it all serves to move towards the huge release of the climax of the work. Again Pénélope is quite different in how that conclusion plays out musically, but Py's staging of the arrival of Zeus on the stage captures just how impressive that ending is, and how magnificently it has been structured and arranged to get to that point.
The influence of Wagner is probably more in this approach to the monologue delivery and the dramatic structure rather than in any overt musical referencing. In the singing at least, Pénélope requires singers of Wagnernian stamina, if not necessarily Wagnerian singers. The title role was actually written for Lucienne Bréval, a soprano noted for the roles of Brünnhilde and Kundry, but Anna Caterina Antonacci assumes the role superbly and with great presence. It's another triumph for Antonacci. Belgian tenor Marc Laho has a Heldentenor-like quality as well as the lyricism required here for Ulysses; his delivery clear, resonant and expressive. Conducted by Patrick Davin, the wonderful musicality and lyricism of the work are made apparent, as well as its hitherto unsuspected dramatic qualities, contributing to make this new production of Fauré's rare work something of a revelation.
Links: ARTE Concert, L'Opéra National du Rhin