on 4 August 2012
Faure's style developed considerably over the years and, if you are familiar with the "Requiem" which dates from the late 1880s, you should not come to "Penelope" (completed in 1912), his only proper opera, expecting a similar blend of sensuousness, easy melodiousness and diatonic harmony. In "Penelope" all traces of the salon have been banished. It is harmonically far more advanced than the "Requiem". Faure's wonderfully natural word setting is always in evidence and the vocal lines are often memorable but the orchestra now carries most of the musical interest. Wagner's influence is very apparent, the opera being through-composed. The music is motivic rather than melodic. Faure's resourcefulness in manipulating his material and the variety of colours he draws from the orchestra is extraordinary. Much of the music is gravely beautiful but "Penelope" is also intensely dramatic. By the ends of Acts 2 and 3 it is viscerally exciting in the Wagnerian manner. Debussy's influence is also apparent in some of the textures and harmonies. (Listen to the music accompanying the weaving and unravelling of the shroud in Act 1.)
The way in to this opera is to make sure you don't read the booklet during the orchestral "Prelude". Most of the opera's melodic material is presented within it and it would be a good idea to listen to it several times before you proceed.
The story is taken from Homer's "Odyssey" and concerns the long-awaited return of Ulysse (Odysseus) to Ithaca after the Trojan war. His wife, Penelope, has been besieged by suitors during Ulysee's absence but has resisted them all. Ulysse returns disguised as a beggar. Penelope announces that she will marry the suitor who can span Ulysse's bow and shoot an arrow through the rings of twelve axes. Ulysse succeeds and reveals his identity. The suitors are slain and the opera ends as Ulysse and Penelope go out to greet the people of Ithaca.
This is the only studio recording this opera has had. Fortunately, it is first-rate in every way. Both Jessye Norman as Penelope and Alain Vanzo are in superb voice. They are also splendid vocal actors. All the other parts are well taken. Jose van Damm is outstanding as the old shepherd Eumee. Dutoit conducts magnificently and the recording is rich and full and beautifully balanced. In fact, this is one of the finest recordings of a French opera ever made and I just cannot recommend it highly enough. It's a pity there's no libretto, though.
This is the only current version of a very elusive and rarely performed opera that I happen to consider a great masterpiece. The production is admirable in every respect except one, but one that may strike you as rather important - supposing, that is, that you agree with me about it. It is clear from other reviews that some listeners admire the casting of Alain Vanzo as Ulysse, but for me his voice is completely wrong for the part. It is a bright, youthful voice, but this is the mighty Odysseus, who alone could bend that mighty bow and who had spent years wandering the Med after putting in more years of service at Troy. It should not have been allowed to happen that when he and Eumaeus the shepherd (Jose van Dam) have a powerful joint number in Act II Eumaeus dominates him. Admittedly Eumaeus is a king fallen on hard times, and so deserves a kingly tone, but Odysseus is still Odysseus, taking second spot to no former king of Crete.
That said, Vanzo sings very well, as you would expect; and given that my own view is likely to be divisive of opinion, it gives me the pretext that I want to award the set the full five stars. The name part is taken by the great Jessye Norman, here at her wonderful (and usual) best. The equally dependable and insightful Dutoit is in charge, and I can't even think whom I might have preferred for the job. After Penelope herself the main female part is that of Odysseus's old nurse Eurycleia, and it is admirably handled by Jocelyne Taillon. The maidservants don't have a lot to do but such as they have they do it well. More important are the mnesteres agauoi, the haughty suitors who are eating Penelope out of house and home as they await her decision which of them to marry, believing as they do that Odysseus is dead. The story is well known - she stalls them month after month by pretending to be weaving a garment which she unpicks at night. When Odysseus returns disguised as a beggar neither she nor Eurycleia recognises him at first, although in the Odyssey someone else does - his dog Argos, once the swiftest of hounds but now old and slow: wisely excluded from Rene Fauchois's excellent libretto.
It is a story that makes an excellent book for an opera altogether. There are no wider lessons regarding la condition humaine and no Greek deities. Not every listener may be aware that it is not the best narrated part of the Odyssey in the original, but the core story can survive that. If you can ever find The Homeric Odyssey, a set of Mary Flexner lectures delivered by Denys Page, then Professor of Greek at Cambridge, you will be entertained by the professor's witty disdain for this substandard Homeric bard whose efforts compare (says Page) unfavourably with a spoof-epic called The Battle of Frogs and Mice. That aside, a good libretto can release latent talents in a composer in whom we might never have suspected them.
Can you imagine Bach or Chopin or Brahms composing an opera? Neither can I, and Faure would have struck me as an equally unlikely composer for the operatic stage. All four of them are `absolute' musicians, although Brahms apparently looked for a suitable text (and his marvellous cantata Rinaldo gives hints of what might have been.) Mozart's absolute music is absolutely the tops, but he had everything. Turning to opera he shows himself a born dramatist as well, but that is not to be expected from most. Faure took much of his life getting one opera right, but the finished article is a triumph in my own opinion. Even the orchestration is genuine dramatic orchestration, and his music matches the pace of the action to perfection. This action has genuine development and climax, and it would not be fair to call it static: indeed it all has easily as much dramatic growth as Tristan and Isolde has, and Dutoit and his talented cast do full justice to that. Faure himself more or less said that Wagner's scheme was the only show in town, but for me there is a difference between the way Faure handles Leitmotiv and Wagner's concept. Wagner encapsulated aspects of his dramas in short musical phrases that give clarity to the plot through their frequent repetition: it is all about making sense of the dramatic action. Faure uses a few tags in his prelude that reappear here and there, but they are really just `themes' as in any symphony or sonata. Their purpose is to delineate the purely musical structure while the story looks after itself, with the music in support.
It has been blessedly easy to review this set, in the sense that I am in no doubt what to say about the performance and recording, both of which are just fine, give or take my own view of Vanzo. The reason it has taken me weeks to produce the review is that Penelope herself takes a lot of getting to know. That is the case with most of Faure's later works, but it is particularly true of this one. He turns his back on `tunes', despite his great melodic gift, in favour of an ultra-refined and mandarin melodic line, and this is surely the reason for Penelope's neglect. She was patient as she waited for Odysseus, her patience was rewarded, and so will yours be (if I may say so), but the reward can't be rushed.