Gabriel Faure's opera "Penelope" (1912) has apparently received two recordings in the last half century, one from 1956 with Regine Crespin and this modern one dating from 1980 done by very strong group of performers. In the title role is the famous American soprano, Jessye Norman. I think Norman's recordings are up-and-down but this is actually one of her strongest interpretations. Almost as well known to opera fans is the French singer Alain Vanzo as Ulysses. Vanzo has a light lyric voice and is in excellent form here. Jose van Dam plays the shepherd in a subsidiary role and does well. Charles Dutoit very capably leads the Monte Carlo orchestra and the supporting cast is good. The item under review here is a recent Warner Music re-release and the sound is good, albeit dark and a bit murky. Overall, this is a high-quality recording, which is fortunate as it is likely to be the only modern recording of Penelope available for the foreseeable future.
So why only four stars? The opera did not grab me and I am not convinced it is a success. The orchestral writing is very attractive, with quite a few striking effects, but again there is almost no repetition with the exception of a few "leitmotifs" and the melodic interest is shall we say subdued. So you have a very complex and nuanced score, with fleeting moments that are beautiful, but moments that are isolated and without connection to other sections.
Faure worked on "Penelope" for a half decade, completing the work in 1912, when he was 67. It was premiered in Monte Carlo, fittingly the location of this recording. Put in one context, the opera forms part of Faure's evolution, from a more accessible early style to an austere, difficult late style which he was working through during this time period. But in other ways, it sounds nothing like his other writing and is an unusual detour from his other music. For a composer who is if anything a melodist, I was surprised to hear that virtually all the vocal parts are declamatory, with melodies subordinated to the text and nothing like an aria or song fragment in sight. There are even stacked fourth chords and motifs, which I have encountered nowhere else in Faure's compositions, and bustling crowd scene passages at the very beginning and end of the opera. Faure has clearly heard and absorbed other fin-de-siecle modernist operas, those by Debussy and Richard Strauss most obviously. So it sounds different.
If I didn't grow to like this work, this fine performance will allow you to hear the work and maybe find the enjoyment I didn't.