Sunday, November 13, 2011

Massenet Reconsidered

Until a couple of years ago, I would have agreed with a comment Joshua Kosman made about 19th c. French music:
I have no particular use for any 19th-century French music that isn't by Berlioz (remember, "Gounod" is an anagram of "ungood")
Well, mostly agreed: unlike Joshua, I'm fond of Saint-Saens. (Yes, I've got tickets to see both the Organ Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Egyptian") at SFS this year - how could I possibly miss them?) Perhaps this particular perversion is balanced by the fact that I have developed something of an aversion to Carmen.

In any event, a few years back I gave a listen to Massenet's Esclarmonde, via Parterre Box's Unnatural Acts of Opera archive. You could say that I was both surprised and positively impressed: the piece has sweep and power, an advanced harmonic language, and an absolutely killer soprano part. I began to suspect that perhaps the problem was not Massenet, but his most-heard opera, Manon, which I feel is best presented as a concert of excerpts.

Then San Francisco Opera put on the composer's Werther, and again I was positively impressed and had a perfectly good time. Charming domestic interludes, adorable children's chorus, some truly remarkable harmonic language. The work got a fine performance, too, with Ramon Vargas in the title role and Alice Coote an extremely strong Charlotte. (Vocally, at least; from the balcony, I found her acting chilly.) 

This afternoon, I got to hear a serious rarity, Sapho, performed by OperaLab, a group of singers who put on concert versions - okay, public read-throughs, with very minimal rehearsal time - of unusual repertory that interests them.

You already know the plot: young man from the provinces - literally; like Alfredo Germont, he's from Provence - moves to the big city, meets and falls in love with an attractive woman, moves in with her, discovers she has a Scandalous Past, leaves her, goes back to her, she leaves him, realizing he'll always be suspicious of her and jealous of her Past. Yes, it's La Traviata, or, more precisely, La Rondine, on a rather different scale. Nobody dies, however much unhappiness there is.

Well, it's a lovely opera! Five acts of consistently interesting and beautiful music; I'm pretty sure that it's perfectly stageworthy, as well. Much charm in the domestic music (the tenor's parents and adorable cousin make appearances); considerable beauty to the arias given to the tenor and the leading soprano, several good character roles. 

Everyone sounded great and sang gorgeously: Tania Solomon as Fanny (Sapho); tenor Ray Chavez as Jean; Elizabeth Wells as Jean's mother; Roger McCracken double-cast as Jean's father and a good friend; Cass Panuska as his cousin Irene; Wayne Wong in several small roles. Robert Ashens played piano quite marvelously. Big kudos to all; I'm so glad to have heard this rarity done with such style and grace.


Steve Morrison said...

I need to catch up on Massenet as well. I'd give my right arm to see his "Panurge" staged. I'm very curious how he handled Rabelais of all things, and his ghost apparently haunted the rehearsals.

sfmike said...

I saw a great production of "Manon" in the 1980s at the SF Opera with Sheri Greenawald, of all people, in the title role, and changed my mind completely about the opera, which I thought crap up until that moment. Also prefer Massenet's version of the Cinderella fairy tale, "Cendrillon" to Rossini's "La Cenerentola," and "Werther" is just great, goopy stuff.

Still, as the composer of kitsch like "Thais" and "Herodiade," there are good reasons to pick and choose among Massenet's works.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I'm fond of lots of Saint-Saens. Then there's Franck. I love his Symphony and his Violin Sonata, but a lot of the rest of his work nauseates me. Never quite figured that one out.

As for Gounod, think small. The Petite Symphonie, the Funeral March of a Marionette; those are his best.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Panurge would be a serious rarity!

Mike, a revelatory Manon would be fascinating; it's very hard to imagine. I'm curious about Cendrillon, which I've never heard. As to Cenerentola, I can't bear to wait 3 hours for "Non piu mesta." Haha about the kitch. Yeah.

The pianist mentioned that Massenet wrote 50-odd operas, so there would have to be some losers.

calimac, I'll have to check out the small-scale Gounod. The large scale...well, I stand by my opinion of Faust as the most boring and worthless opera to hold a place in the standard repertory.

Literally nauseated, upset stomach, as to Franck? Wow.

Anonymous said...

Yes, nauseates. I feel even more strongly that way about Debussy.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm not exactly speechless, but close. A genuinely visceral reaction!

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...


"Yes, nauseates. I feel even more strongly that way about Debussy.


You are not alone.

I actually loathe all of his later music (i.e. most of the piano stuff, Etudes, the violin sonata, Jeux).... I find them awful. And to think there are people who feel that 'Jeux' is his greatest work ??!!

Now I love a good deal of austere and rigorously formed music but Delius had it right, I think, when he said that Debussy had..... 'degenerated into a mannerist'

For me the early string quartet, Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Nocturnes, Suite Bergamasque, a few songs, Pelleas and La Mer will always remain the definitive showcase of his style.

If this makes me a philistine then so be it.