Friday, December 11, 2009

Unheralded Masterpiece

Composed by Gabriel Fauré
Libretto by Rene Fauchois
Conducted by Laurent Pillot
Directed by Lawrence Edelson
Starring Lori Guilbeau, Cooper Nolan, Victoria Vargas, Robert E. Mellon, Bevin Hill, Lindsay Russell, Aesil Cho, Katya Powder, Nicole Weigelt, Pavlina Horakova
Performances November 9, 11, 12, 2009

Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater
John C. Borden Theater
601 West 122nd Street

Pénélope, Gabriel Fauré’s only opera, has been shamefully neglected for nearly a century. Since its premiere in 1913, it has barely been revived, and even in France, where one would expect there to be sympathy for this composer, it’s done less than infrequently. As for New York, I don’t know if there’s ever been a staged performance, and for that alone, we should applaud the Manhattan School of Music’s Opera Theater for selecting such a beautiful orphan.

There have been many reasons thrown about why Pénélope is rarely performed, let alone heard in any form (I have a 1982 recording conducted by Charles Dutoit starring Jessye Norman, and there’s another, earlier recording that’s even more difficult to find.) Soon after its premiere, World War I broke out, and the story goes that Faure’s music sounded passé and dated following the carnage that ended in 1918. There’s also the excuse that the libretto—recounting when Ulysses returned (in disguise) to his faithful wife Pénélope after a long absence fighting the Trojan War—lacks dramatic thrust and simple plausibility, which cannot be denied; but how many great operas have believable, thrilling stories and characters?

Fauré’s music, also, has come under criticism. He wrote dozens of elegant songs and masterly piano and chamber works, but supposedly, orchestral music was not his forte. (That he composed the beautiful Requiem is forgotten.) The Manhattan School of Music chose Pénélope as the centerpiece of its season-long French music festival, and with eminent conductor Laurent Pillot leading the excellent student musicians in a sensitive and sympathetic reading of this gorgeous score, any nagging concerns about its worth in the theater are alleviated.

The singers are not entirely comfortable with Fauré’s singularly French vocal lines, which spin and weave like the threads on Pénélope’s loom, but with an underlying strength and solidity that belies their gossamer surfaces. Still, they do an estimable job in deceptively demanding roles, none more so than Lori Guilbeau as Pénélope, whose stolid acting is cancelled out by a voice that carries the effervescent melodies effortlessly, and Cooper Logan, whose Ulysses has a stentorian tenor. The entire cast is surprisingly harmonious, given the delicate textures in Faure’s vocal idiom.

Director Lawrence Edelson, hampered by a small stage and budget, still conjures a nice approximation of the locales and mythological allusions. But Faure’s music is the opera’s splendid center, and Pillot’s conducting ensures we hear all its glories, from the stark but subdued Prelude—in which we first hear the heroine’s leitmotif, a bewitching tune given many modulations and variations throughout—to the last chord which, after a blazingly majestic chorale for Pénélope and Ulysses’s reunion, ends this marvelously refined opera on a wistful note.
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