Why Isn’t ‘Penelope’ Presented More Often?

Vespertine Opera Theater, UW School of Music and Philharmonia Northwest are doing a great service to music in Seattle by presenting a riveting production of Fauré’s rarely performed, only opera Penelope. It opened at Meany Studio Theater Thursday night with repeats this Saturday and Sunday and it is well worth seeing. It’s well executed, well sung, well played and well staged, and relevant in today’s warlike world.

Artists in many fields have told the ancient story of Ulysses, but unlike most artists French composer Gabriel Fauré told it from the point of view of Ulysses’ faithful wife Penelope. In Homer’s original tale it merely says that while Ulysses was at war or missing for 20 years, her home is overrun with importunate suitors. Penelope holds them at bay by promising to marry one of them when she completes weaving a shroud for Ulysses’ father—and she undoes her day’s weaving every night. 

With a libretto by Rene Fauchois, Faure took this small part of Homer’s lengthy Odyssey and crafted a gem of an opera that received rave reviews at its Paris opening in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. However, it had the bad luck of opening three weeks before Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered at the same theater, and Penelope was shoved to the background by the resulting furor.

It’s short, just over two hours including intermission (which may account for its usual absence from big opera houses), but it packs a wallop in that time, at least in this production. Stage director Dan Wallace Miller has given it a timeless aspect with contemporary jolts. Penelope’s ladies have short dresses draped in Grecian style, while Penelope wears a black, timeless dress that would look in style at any sophisticated evening event today. Her five suitors wear contemporary uniforms, or vestiges of them: camo pants, forage caps, one in a regular suit but with medal ribbons, and one in full uniform. 

From the Odyssey we know the suitors are drunken and raucous, and take full advantage of Penelope’s house, wine, food and ladies. In Miller’s staging the first act is uncomfortable to watch, with the rough, lustful suitors treating the ladies as fair bait; and with disrespectful, sometimes menacing, even violent behavior toward Penelope who also comes in for her share of pawing. The suitors’ acting is all too realistic of what we have heard of conquering warriors today, and the ladies’ shrinking, and Penelope’s frozen distaste are equally clear. The performances are strong on all sides.

Behind the singers, Philharmonia Northwest was conducted by Dean Williamson, for years an assistant conductor at Seattle Opera. While the overture seemed long, with the playing a bit ragged and tentative at first, the orchestra warmed up to being excellent support for the singers.

From the second act on, the stage is dominated by Penelope, sung by mezzo soprano Julia Benzinger, and a lame, half blind and purportedly old beggar—Ulysses in disguise—sung by tenor Eric Neuville. Both are graduates of Seattle Opera Young Artists program. Faure’s lovely music requires big voices in these roles, with rich, expressive singing and excellent acting. Both did extremely well, Neuville with admirable ability to feign age and frailty.

Penelope’s and Ulysses’ efforts to reconnect after years apart, even though she is not quite sure who he is, are again reminiscent of today’s soldiers coming home changed, to changed wives. In the end, of course, Ulysses triumphs over the suitors in a test of strength.

Good work also from supporting roles: baritone Clayton Brainerd as Eumee the shepherd, Ashley Biehl as the shepherd boy and soprano Nerys Jones as the nurse Euryclee. Big kudos to the ladies and suitors without whose graphic acting and animated singing the long first act could have dragged: Margaret Boeckman, Sylvia Baba, Katrina Deininger, Serena Eduljee, Jordan McClellan, Gabriel Gargari, Brett Sprague, Jared Guest, Zach Finkelstein and John Boehr.

Why isn’t this opera presented more often? It’s worth it.