Fauré’s Pénélope in Frankfurt

I had not heard a bar of Gabriel Fauré’s only opera Pénélope and, in keen anticipation of a rare performance in Frankfurt, I speculated on what I might expect to hear, given my experience of his more familiar compositions. Romantic, certainly; lyrical and sensual also with a close responsiveness to the text; harmonically conservative and, though not lacking passion, somewhat restrained.  Well, it was all of these things but more surprisingly the score was symphonic with recurring melodic and thematic ideas which if not as specific and detailed as Wagnerian leitmotifs were clearly influenced by that system. The vocal lines flowed with the orchestra and while not broken into arias and set pieces expressively communicated the feelings of the leading characters. The theme of marital constancy presumably was appealing to Fauré temperamentally and the music built up to powerful climaxes to reflect this. Although the style was to some extent reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, it was more extrovert and explicit in its emotional content

The young conductor Joana Mallwitz was in her element and drew from the Frankfurt Museum Orchestra a full-blooded sound that nevertheless retained architectural structure, so that one had the sense of the music issuing from the text and the dramatic episodes. The two principal soloists were outstanding. In the title role Paula Murrihy invested her vocal utterances with warm legato singing and her mezzo timbre underpinned some lovely high-lying phrases. Her stage presence totally dominated the proceedings. Tall, elegant, regally dignified and largely static, so that movement – when it occurred – intensified the mood of her outbursts, this was a wholly convincing portrayal of a self-willed, stubborn, but faithful spouse. Canadian Eric Laporte’s brilliant tenor did more than justice to Fauré’s urgent writing for Ulysses and if his dramatic interpretation was more ambiguous than that of Penelope that was surely the result of stage director Corinna Tetzel’s take on the piece.

Tetzel was, not unreasonably, concerned to address the drama from a 21st century perspective. As such, it became less a celebration of marital fidelity and more an exploration of whether – and if so, how – love can survive a prolonged absence. So, its focus was Penelope’s psychological state and the couple’s reunion at the end does not resolve the tension. As they walk off in opposite directions, they have attained not a state of conjugal bliss, but rather a degree of self-awareness. The stagecraft adopted to realise this conception was exemplary. The decors, designed by Rifael Ajdarpasic, consisted mainly of a raised central rectangular platform, enabling non-participants, in particular episodes, to observe the action from the perimeter. Movements, including those of the harassing suitors, menacing in their contemporary dark suits, were expressionistically characterised. Interesting too was the decision not to represent literally some of the iconic images of the original drama. The shroud which Penelope secretly unpicks to prolong resistance to the suitors’ impatience is not a piece of woollen cloth but rather her own petticoat, thus communicating the intimacy of the act of defiance. The denouement occurs without Ulysses’ bow ever appearing. Psychological exposition is not to be sacrificed to mythological literalness.

A satisfying and moving performance of a major opera. Can anyone explain why it has been so seriously neglected? I cannot.