Edinburgh review: Pénélope

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Special report: the Edinburgh festival 2000

Gabriel Fauré's Pénélope, composed in 1907, is one of those unfortunate operas that has been obscured between Wagner on one hand and Debussy on the other. But as this concert performance showed, Pénélope contains music and drama of consummate mastery. Even if Fauré's music acknowledges its debt to Wagner with a web of leitmotifs, Pénélope's idiom is recognisably Fauré's own.

What makes the opera so original is the symbiotic relationship between Fauré's magical scoring and his unique harmonic sense. Although the piece is indebted to lush, late-19th-century chromatic harmony, there's something classical about the ambience of Fauré's soundworld. Everything is reined-in and contained, yet there are some startling, prophetic moments. When Pénélope uncovers her loom, Fauré's accompaniment is a simple bed of string and harp sonority. But the voicing of this chord transforms it into something compelling and strange.

Even if the pace of the music is languid, Fauré's concision creates a persuasive dramatic momentum. The story is an unfussy telling of the return of Ulysseto his home, Ithaca, and his plan to kill the suitors who have been tormenting his wife. Pénélope carries everyone else in her lamenting wake. Other characters are reduced to their dramatic function as part of the plot to save her. The suitors, headed by Christopher Maltman's Eurymaque, are priapic villains with no redeeming qualities; Donald Maxwell's Eumée is a rustic do-gooder; and there is a bevy of silly serving-girls.

Soprano Michelle DeYoung's Pénélope has a towering presence. The fullness of her voice is matched by the fluidity of her phrasing. And on the few occasions when Fauré calls for it, she has huge, declamatory power at the very summit of her voice. Tenor Michael Schade is vengefully heroic as Ulysse, and provides enthusiastic energy to contrast with Pénélope's mostly reflective music. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce with convincing sympathy for one of Fauré's most important and most neglected works.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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