The Critics: Music: Faure's 'Penelope' just needs a touch of spin

Penelope Guildhall School, London Spitalfields Festival London Dresden Festival Dresden, Germany
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The Independent Culture
That most forgotten operas deserve their neglect is a given of lyric theatre; but there are always a few that beckon like sirens just beyond the boundaries of repertoire. One that's beckoned to me for years is Penelope, the Faure opera, known from two recordings (Regine Crespin in the 1950s, Jessye Norman in the 1980s) but which never surfaces on stage.

Why not? Because to opera-house intendants, Faure doesn't seem like their material. This was a composer whose voice was domestic, bourgeois, geared to songs and chamber scores. His only large-scale work to have achieved broad currency, the Requiem, is the most modest and consoling music you could hope to die to: not a whisper of the wrath to come. His metier is wistful beauty, and a wandering tonality that homes in on cushioned cadences. It isn't what a Tosca audience is trained to slobber over when the crush-bar bell rings.

And the truth is that much of Penelope sounds like an alluring song, extended to the point at which its enchantment loses definition. It makes for static theatre, like Debussy's Pelleas. And Debussyan wagnerisme, the voices quietly declaiming against big orchestral textures, is mother's milk to this piece, which rewrites the classical story of Odysseus as a French turn-of-the-century Symbolist drama.

It looks unpromising, but might it work? Until last week, few British opera-goers could have known. But then the Guildhall School unveiled a new production - stylishly designed by Giles Cadle (responsible for Glyndebourne's Flight), cleverly directed by Daniel Slater (who did Opera North's Bartered Bride). And the answer, I think, is that it can work, with an audience prepared to yield to the measured tread of its pace.

The big idea behind this staging was to relocate the action to an occupied territory in World War II, turning Penelope's suitors into German army officers and Penelope herself into a sort of Dame of Sark. Catherine Hegarty in the title role made a formidable dame, part Vera Lynn, part Lady Billows. She strode around the stage with more determination than allure. But on the whole it was a decent student cast, well-managed, well-conducted. And the important thing is that the piece was done at all. The next thing - please - is for a company like Opera North to take it up. It's too ravishing a score to be allowed to go to waste.

I say this with awareness of how critics' words come back to haunt them. Last year I described Spitalfields as "a really festive festival", unwittingly supplying the slogan that's now splashed across a thousand posters. On Wednesday night the season began - with a concert of funeral music by Purcell and Schutz so steeped in gloom that it came prefaced by an apology from the conductor, Paul McCreesh. "I know it's not what you were promised," said McCreesh as his Gabrieli Choir slipped into Purcell's Let Mine Eyes Run Down With Tears. Too right it wasn't. But it was the sort of programme that works well in Christ Church, Spitalfields, where you can float a vocal line with near-effortless sensitivity to shape and sense. And although the emphasis on solo textures in the first half exposed a standard problem with groups like the Gabrieli - voices that aren't good enough to stand alone - the more concerted music of the second half was glorious: done with sympathy and insight, and McCreesh's easy rhythmic flow.

Spitalfields Festival was originally set up to promote the restoration of Christ Church ,which was one of the saddest cases in Britain of a great building in decay. Though there's still work to be done, the end is in sight. This year, Hawksmoor's south steps are reinstalled. Next year the balconies will be back and the floor upgraded.

On a rather larger scale, the same is happening in Dresden, where I spent last weekend. In the mind of the West, Dresden is the price paid for national socialism: Europe's Hiroshima, and a smoking ruin in historic photographs. The bombs of 1945 all but obliterated memories of it as a German music capital. But it had an opera house before Berlin and Munich. It was a home base for composers like Hasse, Weber, Schumann, Wagner. Nine of Strauss's operas had their premieres in the famous Dresden Semperoper. And the GDR was mindful of these things when it allocated large resources in hard times to the rebuilding of the Semperoper and the Zwinger, the baroque enclosure where the Saxon princes played at culture politics.

The GDR's own culture politics were meanwhile focused on the Dresden Festival, which was set up to draw western attention to the city's projected renaissance. Fat with government funds, it did quite well - until unification came along, the money dwindled, and standards slumped. But it has bounced back in the past few years, riding the energy of the regeneration projects which have turned the whole of Dresden into a neo-baroque building site. One of only two festivals directly funded by the German government - the other being Bayreuth - it has grown to huge proportions: 80 performances over two weeks. And although the quality of what I saw was variable, there was clearly enough of substance going on for Dresden to reclaim at least some of its old rank.

The Barber of Seville I saw in the Zwinger didn't have too much going for it, beyond family entertainment and a spectacular open-air setting among the pavilions where Augustus the Strong once held Versailles- like spectacles. But the Spanish theme of this year's festival was well- served in the Semperoper, where the radiant Maria Bayo and a strong supporting cast led by Francisco Araiza laughed their way through Dona Francisquita: a superior kind of zarzuela (Spanish operetta), elegantly written and orchestrated by the modern master of the genre, Amadeo Vives. With its easy-come-easy-go melodies, lilting rhythms and carnival atmosphere, it's an odds-on winner of a piece, and I'm surprised nobody ever thinks of doing it in Britain.

But for me, the best experience at Dresden came in local repertory: Strauss's Elektra at the very Semperoper where the piece was premiered in 1909. It was an old Ruth Berghaus staging dusted down - the singers on a white art deco structure like the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill - but impressively cast, with the whale-voiced Gabriele Schnaut in the title role, Hanna Schwarz as an oddly glamorous Klytamnestra, and Ekkehard Wlaschiha a fate-driven Orest. And above all there was the Staatskapelle Orchestra: Dresden's own 450-year-old town band, resident at the Semperoper, and a stunning thing to hear on home ground in a score it knows by heart.

For this Elektra it took centre place, raised from the pit and on to the stage by a director who presumably wanted to make a point about Strauss's musical priorities. In the warm acoustic of this lovely auditorium it sounded handsome, strong but never overwhelming - and considerately pitched against the voices by the conductor, Semyon Bychkov, who was making his first appearance with the Semperoper since he was named its new music director. How that will work out with Giuseppe Sinopoli hanging to his post as MD of the Staatskapelle is anyone's guess. As things stand, the two men are claiming to be blood brothers. It won't last.