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Opéra du Rhin

In Review Penelope LG 116
Antonacci and Laho in Pénélope in Strasbourg
© Bettina Stoess

SWISS DRAMATIC SOPRANO Lucienne Bréval suggested to Gabriel Fauré that he turn his attention to opera, and she introduced the composer to the young poet René Fauchois as a librettist. Fauré and Fauchois delivered to Bréval a role tailor-made for her talents in Pénélope, an opera based on Homer’s Odyssey. The diva performed it at the world premiere, in Monte Carlo in March 1913, and with even greater success at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées the following May—just a few weeks before the theater presented Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the scandalous premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. Director Olivier Py, who has a special affinity with rare French Romantic repertoire, returned to Opéra du Rhin for Fauré’s under-performed masterpiece (seen Oct. 23), with Patrick Davin conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse.

The accepted view of Pénélope is that Fauré’s score is magnificent, but the opera lacks drama. Py, who does not share this view, presented the work in such a manner that the three acts, performed without an intermission over two hours, had sufficient action to show the work as a compelling psychological drama. Pénélope waits for the return of Ulysse while being pestered by suitors for her hand in marriage. Ulysse returns disguised as a poor beggar, kills the suitors, and the couple is reunited. 

Py and his designer Pierre-André Weitz used a revolving circular set, forming an emotional vortex for the drama. Py reintroduced the son of Ulysse, Telemachus, representing the younger Ulysse of Pénélope’s dreams, the dog Argos—the first to recognize his master—and a magnificent horse for the climax of the opera. For the potentially awkward scene of the stretching of the bow, which requires the special force of Ulysse, Py and his designer used a semicircular metallic arch that magically transformed into a circle. Py sees Pénélope’s failure to recognize the hero at once as the essential symbolism in the libretto: trapped by decades of psychotic waiting, Pénélope can only admit to the return of Ulysse once the suitors have been murdered. 

Fauré uses Wagner-style leitmotifs and a through-composed technique with no set “numbers.” There are moments of delicate, harmonically stretched neoclassicism, but the composer does not neglect the need for strong rhetorical gestures where necessary. Davin is an established champion of forgotten French repertoire, especially after his performance last summer of Édouard Lalo’s Jacquerie at the Montpellier Radio France Festival. The Mulhouse orchestra has made progress under his leadership, and although there were passing imperfections on October 23, Davin’s pacing of the work had sensuality and luxuriance, while preserving a good balance with his soloists.

The title role has been the property of many great sopranos, among them Germaine Lubin, Régine Crespin and (on recording) Jessye Norman. Anna Caterina Antonacci is one of the finest tragediennes onstage today, and if her voice no longer has dramatic-soprano ease, she remains magnetic in this repertoire, with noble phrasing and chiseled French diction. Her Ulysse was Marc Laho, whose sensitive phrasing made up for a lack of stentorian tenor power for this tired figure, returning to reclaim his life. Jean-Philippe Lafont brought overwhelming humanity to the role of the supportive shepherd Eumée, roughly voiced but riveting in its projection. There was good support from the warm-voiced contralto Élodie Méchain as the nurse Euryclée, who recognizes Ulysse from a scar on his foot, and baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Eurymaque, the most forceful and hostile of the black-shirted fascist suitors.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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