Friday, February 26, 2016

Gabriel Fauré - Pénélope - Strasbourg

     When we talk about opera it is usually understood that there is a canon of the top, most popular and most often performed operas (Carmen, Boheme, Traviata) and certain composers who are the primary popular opera composers - Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and some others.  But who decided this. Probably no one decided it formally.  Certain composers, like Verdi, composed so many operas and a large number of them were pretty big hits so they have passed through the ages as the operas everyone should know.  And I certainly am not suggesting that the top tier operas should not hold their places.  But, the works and these composers were not the only great composers to write great operas.  And I have had the opportunity within the last few years to become acquainted with a number of great operas by so-called lesser composers.  Operas which are just as deserving as any other operas, in my view.  An example of this would be "La Juive" by Halevy.  This is a magnificent opera.  Powerful, dramatic, moving, thought-provoking with beautiful music.  it deserves to be performed much more often than it is.

     Another work that is deserving of more notice and productions is Gabriel Fauré's one and only opera "Pénélope" based on the return of Ulysses to his home from Homer's "Odyessey." After having spent 10 years (I think) attempting to return home and having many unusual adventures, Ulysses finally returns home from the Trojan War to find that since he has been gone so long everyone thinks he is dead (except his wife, who holds on to her hope).  Consequently poor Penelope has been besieged with suitors.  This is where the opera starts. And these suitors are particularly odious in this opera.  They are wretched men, selfish, lusty, power and wealth hungry.  They are also violent and cruel. Fauré's fine librettist spends a fair amount of act 1 helping us to get to know these guys.  So that by the end of the opera we have no sympathy for them - they get what they deserve.  Musically the opera is such a wonderful combination of various styles - we have French romanticism (Gounod and Massenet), Impressionism and even a little Wagner all mixed together into a wonderfully unique style that Fauré makes his own.  What he gets from Wagner I think is particularly interesting - there are a series of musical motifs that he weaves into the fabric of the score and like Wagner the opera is in a declamatory style - no arias, ensembles, recitatives - it all flows together and it flows together beautifully.  It is very captivating dramatically and the music drives it forward.  The orchestration is beautifully colorful.  His use of the orchestra reminded me more of Saint-Saens, or even Debussy in places.

     The production I watched from the Opera of the Rhein in Strasbourg, France I felt was very well done.  The cast was excellent.  All of them.  I particularly appreciate when a company makes an effort to cast the smaller supporting roles with good singers and actors, and they did that here.  And a good thing too.  Those creepy suitors needed to be good singers AND actors, and they were.  One grew to dislike them intently! The women were also excellent, as was the chorus and orchestra. Anna Caterina Antonacci took on the role of Pénélope and was glorious, I felt.  I loved her performance. She was both vulnerable and calculating, a strong woman who had learned, with difficulty, how to manage these interlopers who were camping out in her home (the suitors).  Marc Laho takes on the role of Ulysse and the great Jean-Philippe Lafont sang the role of Eumée.  I really liked the production. The set was magnificent and consisted of several sections that revolved in and out.  There was water, a horse, the goddess Athena and all kinds of extras here and there.  A really fascinating production.  One of my favorite touches occurred in act 2, while Ulysse and Pénélope and Eumée are conversing behind them dancers are enacting the trials of Ulysses - the sirens, the cyclops all if it is there.  Very well done.  I also liked that this production restored the character of Telemachus.  Fauré had cut this character for some reason during the composition process.  But this production restores the character as a silent dancer. He added a lot.

     In summery, I really enjoyed this opera and this production.  It is beautiful work.  It deserves more productions.  The story is timeless and I commend it to all.  Here is the link - the stream is near the bottom of the page:

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