Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Breathtaking Pénélope at Manhattan School of Music

For lovers of rare French opera, and fans of Gabriel Fauré last night's premiere of Pénélope at the Manhattan School of Music was a nuit divine!

Martin T. Lopez's elegant unit set proved to be a remarkable use of space and created a playing area for the large cast. A central portico (the top of which was ingeniously used for the surtitles) was flanked on either side by immense vertical cubes. The cube to stage right featured a single enormous frame staggered lanterns arranged all illuminating a beautiful calligraphied section of Homer's text on what appeared to be a large distressed scroll with Pénélope's lament surrounding the frame. Two hidden doors at the top would open to reveal the suitors spying on the heroine, as she un-wove Laerte's from her loom. Stage Left's cube was divided into three vertical cubes the front panel of each featuring an immense rose in three stages (one on each cube).

The scrims would illuminate to reveal characters in various scenes e.g., Pénélope's serving woman working their spinning wheels, Ulysse's entrance (in the top cube); the sheperds' choreographed miming of the arrows Ulysse shoots from his bow, and the final bloody tableau of the suitors' corpses in piled in the heap of Ulysse's revenge. There were entrances from either side of the portico, and mounted at its center (and illuminated beautifully during just the right moments) were Ulysse's immense shield and bow. The top of the portico was a raked stage upon which almost the entirety of the second act took place, the "sky" dominated by a beautiful astrological chart.

Miranda Hoffmann's period-themed costumes captured each character to perfection. Pénélope's first, an empire-style number in sky blue that flowed down into a mix of aquamarine and green - seemed exactly right. Her second, a deep royal blue gown with jacket and regal jewelry was stunning. The serving maids all in identical gray gowns and long braids added measurably to the unison feel of their roles. The Suitors, had a marvelously individual, yet collective feel, making them stand out each from the other, and from the Ithacan culture as well, each wearing a long, vividly patterned skirt with individual shirts.

Renowned conductor Laurent Pillot led an almost breathless performance from the pit, the student orchestra belying its name with thoroughly professional playing and polish. Fauré's music - rapturous here, sudden bursts of fortissimo there, with nuance and style. The orchestral interludes, postludes created a spell that seemed to overtake everyone in the noticeably well behaved audience.

The performance of the evening - and one that will be talked about for a while to come, was that of the title role sung by soprano Lori Guilbeau. Folks, this is a voice to watch out for - huge, gleaming sound, amazing control, vocal shading of the music and pointing up the text as if to the manor born (or in this instance "the manner borne").

It wasn't only the voice but her presence dominated everything. She's by no means the petite creature that modern opera culture seems to be demanding, but rather what I like to call, "an opera-singer sized singer." She is also rather beautiful of face and a wonderful actor, already a master of grand old-fashioned operatic gestures (the good kind) and knows how to strike and keep a pose. (Her third act entrance - from one of those cubes, the picture of stillness, evoked a DaVinci painting, a study of noble tragedy. It was breathtaking.

Guilbeau's performance captured every nuance of the complicated and tortured queen, there was brittleness and open hostility in her manner with the suitors in moment's like "Tous, je vous hais!" where she reminds everyone who is queen. Then, in the blink of an eye she could take your breath away as with with utterances like the glorious "Je suis seule . . . " revealing her pain and longing for the return of her beloved. The third act, she simply hurled out earsful of sound with Ah! Malheureux! Malheureux!" riding the orchestra in a manner that made me think she will eventually find her way to Senta and Sieglinde (but not too soon, please!). It was a thoroughly polished performance that garnered the sustained roars that greeted her curtain call. I think I'm in love.

The rest of the cast sounded marvelous, well-trained with (mostly) excellent French - in fact once "home" (I'm visiting) and thinking about it, the French was better than one typically hears from most professional opera companies. Honestly.

Naturally with such an immense cast there were standout performances and chief among those was baritone Joo Won Kang as Eurymache. This is yet another young singer whose name one should watch out for. A handsome man with a major voice of great beauty, style and elegance. Fauré's Eurymache is clearly the leader of the suitors and Mr. Kang's performance ably filled that role - and he appeared to be having a ball playing this delicious bad guy.

Cooper Nolan's Ulysse captured the "ugly old man in rags" brilliantly, hunched almost to the floor as he leaned on his walking stick. (That costume was splendid, complete with hideous mask, foot and leg makeup, enormous scars and a wig that recalled Jon Vickers as both Samson and Peter Grimes!) The voice isn't particularly large, but held his own and he paced himself brilliantly, allowing the "feeble old man" disguise to "gentle the voice" revealing plenty of sound held in reserve for the big sing at the end of the show - where he and Ms. Guilbeau rang out with Fauré’s rapturous music making my eyes fill with tears.

Nolan (and the orchestra) were able to accomplish this earlier as well during one of the most beautiful moments in the entirety of Fauré's oeuvre; Ulysse's brief arioso, “Epouse cherie!" Fauré fills this brief moment with pure magic, revealing the hero's initial hesitancy but then committing fully to his plan, the composer continuing the flow with an ethereal postlude in which he weave's the central theme of the opera through the entire orchestral fabric . . . this gently ascending three note pattern that rises until your heart explodes from tenderness. (Insert heavy sigh here).

Though Euryclee hasn't a lot of music she is one of the most essential elements to the tale, and Victoria Vargas made a meal of the old nurse her rich, plummy mezzo dipping beautifully into the lower registers and her physical attack on the suitors to protect her queen as one of the evening's most touching moments. Likewise her secret chumming up with the old beggar/Ulysse to plot their revenge on the suitors added the necessary element of tension that holds the entire story together.

Lawrence Edelson left not a nook or cranny uncovered in his direction, helping make these characters come to vivid life. Visually there were so many wonderful moments in this staging it would be impossible to recall them all here, but several were just too beautiful not to mention. The serving maids entrance, with their Greek masks and beautifully uniform choreographed gestures and the human "wall" they make to prevent the suitors from attacking the palace. Pénélope's despair as she sits weaving at her loom, the metallic silver threads and its frame weaving her into a sort of visual tapestry. The entire second act with the shepherds on the hill, the despondent Pénélope thinking of hurling herself off the cliff into the sea (a moment which also had me worried for the singer's safety as she bravely stepped onto the edge of the second story high, raked platform!), and the final image of the reunited king and queen on their thrones, with an enormous shower of rose petals being tossed from the shepherds on the second level. All of this - and so much more, were just beautiful to behold.

For so rarely performed an opera, this performance set a standard. In a perfect world, this run would be extended, the performance captured for DVD release, but, helas, such is not the world in which we live. There are only two more performances and anyone able to, really should go.

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