Gabriel Fauré: Pénélope (1913)

Opera en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes.

1913 production poster by Georges Rochegrosse, Wikimedia.

Fauré is not known for his operas. He wrote two (this one was first produced when he was 67 years old), but one would hardly know this from how popular he continues to be as an instrumental composer, pianist, organist, and song writer. As a teacher, I understand the psychological salve that is summer vacation, and composition of this opera occurred only during the summer months from 1907 to 1912 due to teaching and administrative duties. Unlike his usual practice, Fauré orchestrated the entire opera himself, not leaving, as he usually did, the orchestration to his students. Due to time constraints, Fauré asked his librettist to reduce the text from five to three acts, and cut the entire part of Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Ulysses.

The overall consensus on his operas is that they are musically interesting, but dramatically and theatrically inert. Nevertheless, Penelope is sometimes regarded as one of the peak moments in French 20th-century opera, next to Pelleas et Melisande. This is probably not helped by the fact that both of his operas are based on Ancient Greek myths (Prometheus and Pandora, and here Ulysses and Penelope), which during even the best of times can make for dry theatre. Fauré was also under the influence of Wagner here, an accusation which can hardly be made of the composer apart from his operatic works, with a leitmotif system (including an extremely dominant and bewitching theme for Penelope), continuous music, and no individual arias. The tonality of the score is also stretched Tristan-style.

The opera did not have much of a change, although the premiere in March 1913 at Monte-Carlo was successful, the Parisian premiere (May of that year) took place just three weeks before Stravinsky’s notorious Le sacre de printemps premiered on the same stage, and the theatre: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, closed later that year, forced to sell the sets and costumes for this opera. The Comique took up the score in 1919 and it has gotten around a little, (1945 US premiere, 1970 UK premiere, performances into the 2010s) but given the status of its composer and its veiled but high reputation within French musical circles, it really should get out more! Some even get the impression that, had this been written by a German, we might know of it on the same level of notoriety as Pelleas!

SETTTING: Ithaca, ten years after the end of the Trojan War. Penelope (soprano) has been waiting a full decade for her husband Ulysses (tenor) to come home from a war which already lasted a decade. Meanwhile, Ulysses has returned, recognized by his old nurse Euryclea (mezzo-soprano) and, in disguise, allied with the population of shepherds on the island led by Eumaeus (baritone). Ulysses speaks to his wife under this guise, not revealing his true identity until he is able to rid her of the suitors, including the icky Eurymacus (baritone), who have taken up in their palace since he went to war.

Several of the other roles, the suitors and the maids in particular, were written to be interchangeably sung by tenors/baritones or sopranos/mezzo-sopranos respectively, so I won’t list them all here. Just note that the 1982 Erato release with Jessye Norman and Alain Vanzo and the 2015 performance below with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Marc Laho use different vocal combinations and there is no uniform practice. The studio recording is also around four minutes longer than the live performance.


ACT 1: A room in the palace of Ulysses. (61 minutes)

0, 7: Les fouseaux sont lourds The prelude (in g minor) *** immediately tells us that we are in angsty pseudo-Wagnerian waters, and works as a symphonic movement independent of the rest of the opera. It wonders about like the overture to Faust for about the same length of time, developing a parade of ideas which tease the listener with their beauty and power. It never directly quotes the prelude to Parsifal, but it does quote Tristan at least once, and later something that sounds similar to Sibelius’ Finlandia. There is one particular theme (a four note sequence (D, Eb, D, Bb), which re-occures very frequently, thankfully, starting from its first full iteration on the third and fourth bars of the score) that is very catching to the ear, it is a cousin of the Golden Melody, and represents Penelope. This gets reshuffled across the various sections of the orchestra (first strings, then brass, finally woodwinds). Another theme, a trumpet voluntary, is attached to what seems to be a quotation of the Valhalla theme from the Ring (this is the theme for Ulysses). The two themes are in a struggle with each other. It ends with a forlorn bit on the oboe restating the Penelope theme. The woodwinds (particularly oboe and clarinet) start to buzz like bees as the curtain rises and the female servants report on the current state of affairs in the palace **: Penelope waiting in vain for Ulysses, the suitors waiting for Penelope to finish a funerary veil for her father-in-law while at the same time taking far too much advantage of their situation. The maids all think she should have chosen one of the men already.

15, 19: Vers Penelope, soeur divine d’Aphrodite/Jadis, quand on aimait The suitors interrupt the women *, who try to keep them at bay. Euryclea demonstrates her anger by upbraiding the suitors. They beat her up to a violent scamper in the strings. This is interrupted by the very sudden arrival of Penelope *** (to her four-note theme, although it gets stuck on the third note almost to the point that it swallows the fourth note), Fauré really teases the listener with this one, denying satisfaction like a selfish lover, suspending the audience in a near constant state of edging for close to half a minute as he reiterates the theme over and over again). She restates her promise to choose one of the suitors as soon as the burial shroud is ready for her father-in-law, they tell her that her promise is stupid. Most of the themes from the prelude return here including the Ulysses theme (although Fauré sneeks in that Penelope theme constantly if you have an ear for it).

30, 33, 36: Danse/Ulysse! fire epoux!/Je suis un pauvre de passage Penelope orders a dance to entertain/distract the suitors *. Watching her maids get ravished by the suitors causes Penelope to remember her beloved husband **. Ulysses arrives, disguised as a poor traveling shepherd **. Penelope tells the traveler to rest that night (more of both of their themes appears at this point, although in a decidedly minor key). Her maid, Melantho, starts getting a lot more attention from the suitors.

43, 49, 53: Euryclee, Euryclee!/Ulysse reviendra peut-etre Penelope calls in Euryclea again *, who instantly recognizes Ulysses but he swears her to silence. Penelope at first thinks she sees her husband in the man, but gives it up as folly and overthinking after years of his absence. She goes off to pick away at the burial shroud *, and is eventually caught by the suitors undoing her work: they demand that she choose one of them the following day (although she also declares her hatred of all of them). After a lot of rather dark material, Ulysses gets a bright patch from the orchestra ** as he expresses joy over his wife’s continued fidelity over twenty years of absence (this continues for around six minutes). He accompanies Penelope and Euryclea as they go off to watch for Ulysses’ ship by night.

ACT 2: A hilltop. (30 minutes)

1: Sur l’epaule des monts The act starts off with what seems like a very chromatic prelude (a theme, representing shepherds and a lower temp modification of the Penelope theme goes to a solo oboe (it eventually switches to the strings, and then, the clarinet), otherwise it just wonders about as we encounter Eumaeus, the chief herder *.

4, 9: C’est sur ce banc/De mon hote The heart of the act consists of a 22-minute long scene * which starts off as a dialogue between a frustrated Penelope and Euryclea, who encounter Eumaeus, and then, eventually a dialogue about domesticity between Penelope and Ulysses (which reunites the two leitmotifs introduced in the prelude to act one **. Ulysses does not actually reveal his identity to his wife, instead introducing the idea of Ulysses’ return to his wife (he claims to be a banished king of Crete who met Ulysses recently) and if she would accept him after twenty years of absence. He also offers to militarily defeat the horde of suitors swarming around Penelope. Taken as a whole, the scene has its ups and downs, sort of like an ocean storm, moments of calm, even ennui, and moments of tumult (even triumph). The old theme from the act prelude returns with Euryclea who comes to fetch Penelope (who dreads the idea of having to marry one of the jerk suitors). Ulysses tells Euryclea to find the bow of Ulysses. Just as Penelope departs (after almost figuring out that Ulysses is the weird guy who keeps following her) there is a strong go at her theme.

27: Eumae, et vous tous! Ulysses reveals himself to the shepherds in the first really up beat moment in the score other than the constant (if pleasurable) reiterations of the Penelope theme **.

ACT 3: The Royal Hall, the light gradually increases as the act unfolds. (33 minutes)

0: Toute la nuit The act opens with a much more appropriately stronger bit of tumultuous preluding **, then Ulysses comes on, followed by Euryclea who informs him about the bow (also more Penelope theme). Ulysses then has an orchestrally rich dialogue with Eumaeus as everything is set up for the shepherds to invade the palace once Ulysses reveals himself.

7: Qu’il est doux Antinous, one of the tenor suitors, gets a pretty number (possibly the closest thing in the opera to an actual aria **, before the contest.

12: La reine! Penelope arrives (another strong iteration of her theme) **. She sets up the gimmick: only he who can use Ulysses’ bow to string an arrow through twelve axes and successfully hit a target can he worthy of Ulysses’ wife. The suitors all give it a try, although the size of the bow is such that the challenge is impossible to them (the bow being massive).

23: Autrefois, on vantait ma force Ulysses gives it a go, and wins (of course) which infuriates the suitors but provides for a rather glorious passage *** (especially after the bow is bent). Ulysses, with the army of shepherds, slaughters the suitors (dreadful Eurymachus is the first to fall, by Ulysses).

27: Justice est faite! The finale *** is in two parts: first, the reunion between Ulysses and Penelope. Second: a glorious hymn to Zeus as the people of Ithaca exclaim the return of their king. Fauré has been building up the suspense with ennui all this time for an effective finish.


Penelope, and operas like it, are the main reason why this blog exists: scores which are really rather brilliant, but which get almost no performances for whatever reason (Wagner-Supremacism, French-self loathing, anti-Semitism, whatever, the result is the same).

Musically, the opera is rather fascinating. The prelude is filled with so many great ideas and thankfully these for the most part come back later in the opera. The drama is admittedly sluggish (the idea of five acts of this is probably terrifyingly boring), with the second act really not contributing anything to the main narrative other than to provide the leads with an opportunity to size each other up in between the set up and return in act one and the demise of the suitors and reunion in act three.

Somewhat intriguingly, the pseudo-Wagnerian score suits the Ancient Greek narrative well, although this may be because Fauré is taking Wagner and tailoring him to a Gallic suit. The Wagner Fauré uses is a brooding one, for the most part, not the triumphalist one (exceptions being the acts two and three finales which are just about the only times in the score which can be termed “upbeat”). The seductive ear worm which opens the story (the Penelope theme) is one of the most beguiling four-note intervals in music. It isn’t designed to be sinister, but it is hauntingly beautiful. Perhaps its simplicity is the main cause of this. Fauré perhaps uses it a little too much, it starts to show up on a level similar to that of the leitmotifs in Meistersinger, but the attractiveness of the melody and the comparative brevity of the opera make up for this.

The characterizations are very good, particularly, and rather obviously, Penelope herself, although all four leads are strongly projected. The suitors and the maids, as groups as they rarely act individually even if they do sing individually, are also well projected.

Although, if at Wagnerian proportions, this would be rather boring and over long, the two hour running time is just perfect for the minimal drama. Although portions of the first act can drag, the other two are far too short for that problem to occur, and the first act does have that rather glorious g-minor prelude heading it off, so, an alpha of course!

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