I finally replaced my long-lost LP set on CD of Faure's magnificent opera,
Penelope and have spent the last two days reacquainting myself with it. I'd
fond memories of it, but like all works one loses touch with, so many
exquisite moments reintroduced themselves to me as if for the first time.
I'm truly embarassed at how much of this lovely work I'd forgotten.
While many have decried its somewhat static nature as possibly not capable
of holding a modern audience's interest, I find this hard to believe. If
memory serves me correctly, the last few productions it received, one in
Berkeley, California and one in England, both times it was received
enthusiastically. With all the wonderful rediscoveries many operas have had
in the past few years, perhaps it's time to re-examine Penelope.
Beginning deceptively Wagnerian in its prelude - lots of beautiful
chromaticism and giving way to shimmery strings Faure uses an orchestral
language highly original unique and never less than beautiful. Faure admits
to using Wagner's style of leitmotifs - but in his own way (more
orchestrally than vocally) "It is Wagner's system, but there is none better"
he wrote. The vocal lines surely sound like Faure. Gloriously so. Faure
weaves music that ranges from neo-ancient modal sounding to music so fresh
and modern sounding it could have easily been composed last night. His
cadences and chord structure feel both exotic and familiar.
The "Love Theme" woven throughout from early on to the end, is unusual in
that it seems to expand and contract as necessary to the situations at hand
as well as the vocal lines. Nowhere is it more thrilling and tear inducing
than at the close of Act I where it begins tentatively at the conclusion of
the vocal line (Ulysse's gently sung "Je vous suis . . . ") and in a matter
of bars builds to a shimmering theme of hope, thirds rising and rising and
then backwards ending as gently as the Agnus Dei of his Requiem. (Insert
wistful sigh here.)
Jessye Norman in the title role is captured at just about zenith hour. The
voice is steady, rich, and flows evenly in all registers and her top never
sounded so secure or pinpoint accurate as here. It is an amazingly touching
portrayal, noble and frail at once. In her private moments (as Act 1 "Je
suis seule . . . ") she exhibits her longing for Ulysse, tender longing and
impatience combined, yet in the presence of the suitors she is all business
showing strength and determination ("Tous, je vous hais!). Faure gives her
music throughout of exquisite beauty and fleshes out a wonderfully, French
heroine. (Norman's Act III outcry "Ah! Malheureux! Malheureux! can
The beloved Alain Vanzo is a stunning Ulysse. Unlike Monteverdi, Faure has
Ulysse at court nearly from the start, but in his old man costume. Those
who believe Vanzo not a great actor need only listen to him in this role -
THIS is vocal acting of consummate skill. Gentle in his public scenes with
Penelope disguised as the old man, when alone there is something he does
with the voice I cannot describe - it's still clean and glorious - but there
is a "heft" factor which doesn't sound like he's beefing up a more slender
voice (as so many lighter tenors have done) - rather it's the manner in
which he deploys the text and his sense of style. It is never less than
stunning. His brief soliloquy arioso in Act I "Epouse cherie! Epouse
cherie!" is 90 seconds or so of some of the most beautiful, heartfelt
Before going off too much here, the rest of the cast, including Jose Van
Dam, Francois Leroux, Jocelyne Taillon, Jean Dupouy, Philippe Hottenlocher
and others, all with the forces of Monte Carlo under Charles Dutoit seem to
be caught up in this rare project and make the drama come alive as though it
were a live performance.
Seemingly unavailable for years (well, I couldn't find it) it's again
available from Erato and at a pretty cheap price!
This is a real treat, folks. For anyone unfamiliar with Penelope, treat
yourselves to a listen.
Exquisite is not compliment enough for this work -
stunning from first note to last.