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Patience on a monument

Guildhall School of Music and Drama
06/05/1999 -  and 7, 9*, 11 June 1999
Gabriel Fauré Pénélope
Katija Dragojevic (Cléone), Tarita Botsman (Mélantho), Margriet van Riesen (Alkandre), Sophie Karthäuser (Phylo), Estelle Kaïque (Eurynome), Christian Immler (Eurymache), Howard Kirk (Antinoüs), Matthew Marriott (Léodès), Hans Voschezang (Ctésippe), Peter Grant (Pisandre), Catherine Hegarty (Pénélope), Louise Poole (Euryclée), Lorenzo Caròla (Ulysse), Stephan Loges (Eumée), Emma Preston-Dunlop (Shepherd)
Clive Timms (conductor), Daniel Slater (director)

These days, the music schools and student companies seem to be providing the best value in London for operatic repertoire and production. University College explores rare repertoire every year, this year performing an excellent production Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has already put on a musically superb, and thoroughly entertaining, production of Cherevichki this year. Fauré's Pénélope is a contrast in almost every respect, but again a rare but worthwhile work gets a fine performance. And with seats for GBP14 at the most!

Pénélope, first produced in 1913, could be described as reform Wagner. It is the story of the second part of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view. Penelope is a massive soprano role in a dramatic tone poem composed in bright, clear Mediterranean colours rather than Celtic haze, and with classical economy and organization rather than romantic sweep.

Daniel Slater's production seemed to start from the idea that Greece is always the land of the imagination. The Odyssey was always a narrative about somewhere else -- even when Odysseus returns to Ithaca, it is still a story about the past in another country for its original audience --, while for Fauré it is still to some extent the Romantics' land of clarity and ideals.

Slater sets the story in Greece under Nazi occupation, in a clear nod towards Louis de Bernière's magical-realist novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which is quoted in the programme. Pénélope is a stylish rich woman, the suitors are inevitably German officers, and the shepherds who help Ulisse are partisans. The set, however, is monumental "stone" (it wobbled alarmingly during the violence in the final scene), suggesting a bronze-age palace, the suitors drink from an oversized fifth-century Athenian red-figure cup, the dancers are Wedgewood-style Grecian maidens, and a golden archer in armour in "classical" style appears at crucial moments, for example, helping Ulisse bend the bow.

The visual effect seems to be held together by the timeless appearance of the chorus women, in traditional black, by the strong rectangular lines of the looms in act one, Laius' tomb in act two and the empty hall in act three, and by the backdrops of sea and night sky. This provides a perfect complement to the strong, abstract musical texture with interludes of exoticism, for example in some of the dances. (The pseudo-oriental dances are part of the action, and are performed by the chorus in near-eastern style, whereas the classical dances are commentary.

There is one false note, at the end: after the partisans have slaughtered the suitors, Eumée puts on a Nazi uniform and everyone gives a quasi-fascist salute. It's true that Ulisse uses brutal violence, but in the traditional story, and in Fauré's music, it is a necessary redress for the crimes of the suitors. Our sympathies are entirely with him.

The (international, mainly European) cast was as good as you could hope to see in London, at almost any price. Catherine Hegarty as Pénélope was strong and stylish, in character and vocally, without a trace of shriek in a very demanding role. Lorenzo Caròla was similarly impressive as Ulisse, particularly in his heroic set-pieces. Stephan Loges stood out as the old swineherd Eumée, blind in this production. Loges has an outstanding baritone voice and dramatic sense -- he was convincingly blind throughout. There were many other striking performances in the rest of the cast.

The student orchestra, under Clive Timms, gave a rousing performance, perhaps a bit lacking in light and shade, but with a strong sense of the shape and drama of the score.

H.E. Elsom



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