The Grecian Formula

December 11, 2009

Two nights in a row I sat in a darkened room and watched, and especially heard, great stories of enduring power brought to life as vivid as that of the most dramatic current headlines. More so, actually, since the only reason we’re still rehearsing these millennia-old plots is because they are so dead-on. Savvy opera composers have long known that a sure-fire libretto can emerge from these stories. Stories that have long since proved their universal applicability will find a target in virtually every human heart.

So it was on Wednesday evening at the Manhattan School of Music and on Thursday evening at the Metropolitan Opera House.

I remember once in my youth having made some ill-considered, boiler-plate remark about music as a universal language, only to be told that, for disproof of that idea one need look no further than the reputations of Reger in Germany and of Fauré in France, where they occupy a status reserved for Bach in the United States. While, at this date, Fauré’s passport gets a good deal more use than Reger’s does, he owes his mobility mostly to the songs and above all to the early and atypical Requiem. His late and mature opera Pénélope is not much heard in comparison, and it was good to encounter it in fine shape at the MSM. This will never be a wildly popular piece, and Fauré must have known that he was composing a kind of twentieth-century musica reservata. But for those who can do without a lot of action and can bask in the sublime for a couple of hours, this is an opera to treasure. There are to be two more performances of this production, and I recommend it to all who are within reach of it.

Of course one reason that the story of Faithful Penelope, as my first-year Latin textbook always called her, is so rewarding is because an expectation is relentlessly built up, meditated upon, made the hearer’s own, and then rewarded. It is not just the expectation that Penelope will be reunited with her Ulysses, for we’ve known all evening that that event was already set up with the arrival of the disguised king. Whether we allow ourselves to realize it fully or not, what we are really waiting for, as we admire the heroine’s constancy and bathe in Fauré’s chaste opulence, is the slaughter of those annoying anti-Ulysses suitors. This is the real climax of the action, and the inevitable love-duet afterwards is, in plot terms, a victory lap just as much as the final “Lets be merry” chorus of Figaro is.

In Strauss’s Elektra, while the return of the wandering Orestes is longed for, what we really are building up to is the violent murder of the mother and her guilty spouse. We are asked to join Elektra in the most nakedly bloodthirsty suspense. And just as the music of Fauré leads us into a female mind of the utmost refinement and gentleness, that of Strauss invites us to the most primitive kind of vengeful rage and unmitigated hate. The Met’s first presentation of its current revival of the work was pretty overwhelming — largely due to the orchestral playing and the magisterial Klytemnestra of Felicity Palmer.

Clytemnestra is of course the reverse-image of Penelope: she’s the unfaithful wife upon whom revenge must be taken by her children. Oh, dear. These Greeks really did know how to lead us into subjects and psychological situations we’d rather avoid, didn’t they?

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