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Pascal DUSAPIN (b. 1955)
Penthesilea, opera in a prologue, eleven scenes and an epilogue after Heinrich von Kleist (2015)
Natascha Petrinsky, Penthesilea
Marisol Montalvo, Prothoe
Georg Nigl, Achilles
Werner van Mechelen, Odysseus
Eve-Maud Hubeaux, High priestess
Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie/Franck Olli
rec. 2015, Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels
Premiere recording
German text included
CYPRES CYP4654 [55:18 + 34:33]

The French composer Pascal Dusapin is well-established in his own country and internationally, but is little-known in the UK. He has composed in a wide range of forms from opera and orchestral works to chamber music, but seems happiest with large forces. Perhaps his most representative work is his cycle of Seven solos (review), which are not in fact solos but orchestral works.

Here we have one of his most recent operas, Penthesilea, based on the tragedy of that name by the German writer Hermann von Kleist. (Some listeners may know Othmar Schoeck’s opera on the same subject.) The time is that of the Trojan war, in the period after the death of Hector and so not in the Iliad of Homer (the Greek sources are fragmentary). Penthesilea is the queen of the Amazons, the warrior women who come to support the Trojans. They have a custom that Amazons can only marry men whom they have defeated in battle. Penthesilea falls in love with Achilles and wants to defeat him in order to marry him, but he defeats her. He agrees to pretend otherwise but this does not work out and she kills him with an arrow and then stabs herself.

The work is in one act which plays continuously with a prologue, eleven scenes and an epilogue. When I add that the libretto, on which the composer worked with his librettist Beate Haeckl, is in German, it may sound too like Strauss’s Elektra to be true. However, it is nothing like as loud as that masterpiece, though the orchestra, of normal size, does contain some exotica: an alto flute, a contrabass clarinet – which is much in evidence – a cimbalon and a good deal of percussion.

The music is intensely atmospheric and evokes a sense of doom. The idiom is neo-expressionist: the nearest equivalent I can think of is that of Birtwistle. It is predominantly slow-moving, with only two eruptions into violent action, in rendering battle scenes. The vocal lines are largely declamatory but they sound well and the orchestral writing is not so thick as to drown them. It is full of fascinating sounds. My reservation would be simply that there is too much slow music and a lack of variety in mood as well as pace. However, Dusapin is not only an experienced composer but an experienced opera composer – this is his eighth opera – so this is presumably deliberate.

The performances are very strong. Natascha Petrinsky in the title role is secure and commanding, including in the passages where she falls into a frenzy. Her confidante Prothoe, a rather ungrateful role, is adequately handled by Marisol Montalvo, as is the important figure of the high priestess by Eve-Maud Hubeaux. Georg Nigl makes a satisfactory Achilles. The other parts are smaller. The orchestra under Franck Ollu sound well prepared and the recording is clear with a good balance between the singers and the orchestra.

The booklet, in type so small I had to use a magnifying glass, contains a synopsis in four languages but the libretto is provided only in German. It also tells me that this is a recording of the world premiere, in which case it is remarkably confident for such a demanding work. Those who follow Dusapin need not hesitate.

Stephen Barber

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