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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Massenet—Beyond Werther

Mar 3, 2016 2:48:00 PM
By John Conklin

by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

BLO is deeply immersed in getting our production of Massenet's luscious and moving opera onto the stage (it opens March 11). Werther is certainly his most well-known piece (or would that be Manon?) but even it, acclaimed as his masterpiece, is not as commonly performed as would seem its due based on its charm, melodic richness, and depth of drama. And then there is the "rest" of Massenet...

Massenet wrote more than 30 operas (or 44...or 36...). Authorities differ on the exact number because some of his early works have been lost, still others were left incomplete, and some were substantially recomposed after their premieres.

He worked with a large number of different librettists and drew inspiration from such disparate authors as Goethe, Rabelais, Anatole France, Cervantes, Abbé Prevost, Flaubert, and Corneille.

The 1954 edition of The Grove Dictionary of Opera said, "to have heard Manon is to have heard all of [Massenet]." In 1994, the music critic Andrew Porter called this view preposterous. He countered, "Who knows Manon, Werther, and Don Quichotte knows the best of Massenet, but not his range from heroic romance to steamy verismo."

Three quotes from the 1993 Viking Opera Guide:

  • "It would be absurd to claim that he was anything more than a second-rate composer; he nevertheless deserves to be seen, like Richard Strauss, at least as a first-class second-rate one."
  • "Yet whatever the stature of his works, he was the most successful composer of opera in France, if not in Europe, in the quarter century between the death of Bizet and the premiere of Pelléas [et Mélisande]. His technical mastery and his craftsmanship are undeniable. He was also a complete man of the theater, assiduously attending to every detail of the staging of his works: scenery, costumes and lighting as well as orchestra—and their revivals throughout Europe. In this respect, he was as much of a 'producer' as Wagner."
  • "Now that even serious musicians recognize that some quite important things have been said in the Broadway commercial theater, they might be prodded into recognizing the same about the similarly commercial French operatic institutions of the 19th century. Gershwin, Weill and Rodgers at their best do more than just 'reflect' the anxieties and preoccupations of their audience: they tease and provoke them from a consciously humanistic and moralistic standpoint. So did Massenet."

According to an Operabase analysis, productions around the world in 2012-13 show Massenet as the 20th most popular of all opera composers. His most often performed work: Werther (63 productions in all countries), followed by Manon (47), Don Quichotte (22), Thais (21), then Cendrillon (17).

Here are some succulent items from that vast sea of  Massenet works (he called them a wide variety of terms, including: opéra comique, comédie chantée, comédie-lyrique, comédie-héroïque, conte de fées, drame passionnel, haulte farce musicale, opéra légendaire, opera romanesque and opéra tragique):

Manon
Massenet is rightly famous for this powerful evocation of a sensuous and erotic atmosphere, coupled with an ultra-French coolness and elegance. Here, in another view, Alagna and Netrebko go at it with perhaps a little more eroticism and a little less coolness.

Cendrillon 
Massenet's version of the Cinderella story, a charming opera and, in this performance by Joyce DiDonato, deeply felt.

Le Cid
Massenet in an heroic, epic, and tragic mode; here, with Maria Callas conveying those emotions in their purest and most intense expressio.

Thaïs
This opera includes perhaps his most famous melody—the "Meditation"—which expresses the courtesan Thaïs' awakening consciousness...here beautifully etched by Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Hérodiade
Salome's declaration of love to John the Baptist—sung here by Sonya Yoncheva (recently a sensation at the Metropolitan Opera in her debut there).

Don Quichotte 
One of Massenet's last operas and one of his most famous characterizations. Here is the incomparable José van Dam in Quichotte's death scene.

Topics: 2015/16 Season, Massenet, Werther

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