S & H Opera Review

Faurè: Pénélope, Opera in Three Acts, Concert Version, June 14, 2001, Théàtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris (FC).

1913 was some year to be in Paris! Although the Great War was looming, it was the spectacular opening season of the art deco Théàtre des Champs-Elysées. A terrific bill of fare was on display to establish it immediately as the place to be in the Paris musical scene. In addition to a then-rare Western European performance of Boris Godunov (with Chaliapin, of course) they had the Ballets Russe with Nijinski dancing the orgasmic Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy's final ballet Jeux was debuted, along with the riotous first performance of the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. Not the least of the offerings was the Paris premiere of the new opera by Gabriel Fauré, Pénélope. The composer, already 50 years old, was at the height of his powers and this was a much-anticipated event.

Eighty-eight years later, a rare performance of this masterpiece can be heard in the same setting. With Claude Schnitzler, of Opéra de Rennes and Liepzig, on the podium directing the Orchestra National de France, the Chorus of Radio France, and with the fine soprano Isabelle Vernet in the title role, it was a performance that suggests that a critical re-examination of this opera is appropriate. This concert was broadcast on France Musique and on many other stations throughout Europe on the evening of the 16 June.

I have to admit to a special regard for the music of Fauré and it is often his chamber music that I chose in those soft, late-afternoon hours when the sun is low and golden. Apparently for the French too the prospect of a full-scale opera by this master of chamber music seemed odd. There were empty seats at the beginning of the evening and these increased during the performance. As the reviewer for Le Monde pointed out, getting Parisians to an opera by Fauré is like asking them to buy tickets to a Stabat Mater by Chopin. But the patient listener will find the same master at work in this opus, with all of his skills of orchestration and his easy ability to write beautiful melodies clearly in evidence. His music, so tender but still with an underlying edge of intensity, places him at the front rank of the late-Romantic composers and this opera, loaded with splendid musical moments, only confirms that position.

The gentleness and reflective nature of his musical soul always reminds me of his contemporary, Frederick Delius, who has also written fine operas that are today not often performed. But the frequency of performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet is far ahead of the Fauré opera. Perhaps the reason is Fauré's libretto, taken from Homer's Odyssey, by a young, inexperienced and ultimately untalented René Fauchois. Fauré's letters to Fauchois about the text are a catalogue of complaints that will be repeated by critics of this work. Most likely the fault lies in the ultimate source of this plot. With all deference to our blind poet, the characters are mostly archetypes and perform symbolic roles in the tradition of ancient theatre. This Greco-Roman theatrical style, widely used by Baroque composers, is not to the taste of modern audiences, used to the more realistic theatre traditions of the last two centuries. The Delius opera is more widely performed because it has a more "modern" feel. The love duets and a heated emotional climate produce compelling opera moments. That is missing in Pénélope.

In order to bring Handel operas back to the stage, for example, directors have had to devise creative production strategies to make these antique plots palatable to contemporary opera-goers.

These same theatrical techniques perhaps need to be applied to this fine opera to bring it back, at least occasionally, to the world's opera stages. The music is too important to be left on the shelf.

The orchestra and vocalists worked hard to make a case for this opera. Isabelle Vernet, in the title role, is having a period of difficulty with her voice, at this was apparent on the evening in question. It lacked the control and lyric ease heard in past performances. The supporting roles, fourteen in all, were sung ably and often engagingly. The conductor, Claude Schnitzler, a last minute substitute for the indisposed Pinchas Steinberg, having conducted this work in Lausanne last year, was able to fill in and make a significant musical impression.

Frank Cadenhead

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