Opera's neglected genius
Around the turn of the 20th century, the lively French opera scene was dominated by Jules Massenet. Prolific and popular, he had many international successes to his credit, including Manon, Werther and Thaïs. One of his operas, La Navarraise, even premiered at London’s Covent Garden in 1894 – a rare honour for a non-British composer and a significant marker of his high status at the time. Yet when he published his memoirs in 1912, the year of his death, Massenet concluded them with an odd chapter entitled ‘Thoughts after Death’, which includes snatches of conversation overheard in a theatre in the wake of his demise. One reads, ‘Now that he is dead, they’ll play him less, won’t they?’
The composer’s fears proved accurate. With the changes wrought by the arrival of modernism (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring enjoyed its notorious premiere in Paris in 1913), World War I, and the maturing of a new generation of composers, Massenet’s music suddenly seemed old-fashioned. Though a handful of his works were not entirely forgotten, at least in France, the bulk of his output fell away from the international repertoire, leaving only Manon and Werther to represent his once prosperous art on the world stage. And so things remained for decades.
Massenet is far from being the only composer to suffer an eclipse following his death, but he’s also an instance of one whose fortunes, having slid downwards, would eventually take an appreciable upturn. Exactly when and where the Massenet revival began is open to discussion but in his memoir of his grandfather, Pierre Bessand-Massenet opts for the US in the mid-1970s, when Manon, Werther and Don Quichotte were all staged in Chicago, and San Francisco responded with Esclarmonde, Thaïs and Werther, all of which were later taken into the repertory of the New York Met. Nowadays several of Massenet’s operas can once again be encountered regularly either in the theatre or on disc. On the list of the composers most frequently performed in the opera house compiled by Operabase.com, Massenet makes it into the top 20 (just!), at 19th position. His five most frequently performed works are Werther, Manon, Thaïs, Don Quichotte and Cendrillon, but others, such as Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, Chérubin and Hérodiade, have also shown signs of life. The wheel has turned full circle.
Massenet’s position as the leading French opera composer of his generation would have seemed unassailable in his lifetime. He demonstrated the ability to take on a wide range of subjects and different operatic genres with equal fluency. While best remembered for the compelling musical and dramatic intimacy of several of his mature scores, his range extended to producing pieces conceived on the largest scale and involving huge forces, such as Le Cid and Hérodiade.
He was born in 1842 into a respectable middle-class family in Saint-Etienne, in the Loire region. His musical talent was soon apparent and his mother began to give him piano lessons. As a result of her tuition he was accepted as a student by the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11. There he won a first prize for piano at the age of 17, going on to receive the Prix de Rome – the Conservatoire’s top composition prize – in 1863. During these years he frequently moonlighted as a timpanist in theatre orchestras, where he could learn at a practical level exactly what made an effective opera tick.
Massenet began his operatic career in 1867 with the one-act comedy La grand’Tante, which went down well with the audience at the Opéra-Comique, if not universally with the critics. He followed its success with incidental music for plays and two oratorios, Marie-Magdeleine (1873) and Eve (1875), consolidating his reputation as a composer with a formidable technique and a keen sense of atmosphere.
By 1877 he had reached the dizzy heights of the Paris Opéra, the jewel in the crown of the French capital’s lyric theatres, with the colourful spectacular Le Roi de Lahore, whose success brought him his first international performances. By now producing a constant flow of operas, he was dismayed when his biblical opera Hérodiade was rejected by the Opéra; but it was quickly snapped up by Brussels, where it triumphed in 1881. In 1884 Manon had its first performance at the Opéra-Comique, its steadily growing success forming the lynchpin of his reputation.
In the 1890s his productivity and international fame reached their apogee. Werther was premiered at the Vienna Court Opera in 1892, though it would later rival Manon as a permanent feature back at the Opéra-Comique, which had initially rejected it. The starkly personal Sapho (1897), about an artist’s model having an ill-fated affair with a young man, and the Perrault-based fairy-tale Cendrillon (1899) bolstered his hold on Paris’s second lyric theatre, which had effectively become Massenet’s personal fiefdom. Several subsequent major scores were premiered at the Monte Carlo Opera, under the imaginative management of fellow-composer Raoul Gunsbourg, including the mystical Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902), the post-Mozartian Chérubin (1905) and the valedictory Don Quichotte (1910).
As far as the public was concerned, Massenet appeared to lead a quiet and respectable bourgeois life. In 1866 he married his former pupil Louise-Constance de Gressy, known as ‘Ninon’, their ostensibly happy union surviving what were – at the very least – close and long-term professional relationships with some of his leading ladies. The American soprano and beauty Sybil Sanderson fascinated him sufficiently for him to revise the role of Manon to fit her voice, and to write especially for her the title roles in the grandly fantastical Esclarmonde (1889) and the tragically ironic Thaïs (1894), in which the ascetic Christian hermit Athanaël’s religious fervour is challenged and eventually destroyed by his experience of erotic love. The mezzo Lucy Arbell was the inspiration for a second sequence of works, including Ariane (1906), Thérèse (1907), Bacchus (1909), Don Quichotte and Roma (1912) – following Massenet’s death, her determined pursuit of her rights to perform his works held up the posthumous premieres of Cléopâtre (1914) and Amadis (1922).
Massenet’s career centred on opera, though he composed in other media, writing four ballets and four oratorios, plus orchestral works including a piano concerto and numerous suites, as well as around 200 songs. On stage he could essay the grand manner with conviction. For the well-endowed Opéra he produced the flamboyant Le Cid (1885), a tale of the medieval Spanish/Moorish conflict; Le Mage (1891), set in Ancient Persia; and the Greek mythological pairing of Ariane and Bacchus. Esclarmonde, first performed at the Opéra-Comique, revels in an equal level of musical and dramatic ostentation. In these works Massenet’s instinct for the grand gesture, often involving large and competing forces in vast ensembles bringing individual acts to imposing ends, is given full play.
The other side of his coin is a penchant for musical and dramatic intimacy. His method of setting a libretto was to finalise a text with his collaborators and then to learn it by heart, afterwards speaking the individual lines to himself aloud, often while he took a walk, until he was satisfied he had discovered the best possible notation to suit the text’s requirements and his musical needs. This gives his settings an unusually close correspondence with the natural rhythms and flow of the French language. Massenet is equally adept at creating orchestral and harmonic musical scenery, whatever period or setting he was depicting.
But his individual characterisations also offer emotional depth, ranging from the unstable, suicidal poet Werther and his more conventional beloved Charlotte, through the poignancy of Don Quichotte’s silver-haired fascination with the young, carefree Dulcinée, or the zealous Athanaël’s increasing obsession with his converted courtesan Thaïs, to the desperate passion that holds Manon and Des Grieux together as their lives fall apart.
Massenet composed Manon, often regarded as his masterpiece, for the Opéra-Comique in Paris between 1882 and ’84, presenting the theatre’s director, Léon Carvalho – who was notoriously interventionist in the matter of demanding rewrites and revisions before a new work was staged – with a bound and engraved copy of the full score. ‘My friend,’ Carvalho assured him, ‘your work will be performed as though you were already dead.’ The result was premiered on 19 January 1884. Though the first night received mixed reviews (Prévost’s novel was already a literary classic: tampering with it was a risky business), the piece went down well with the public and there were several encores. With a few gaps – the first caused by the death of the prima donna who created the title role – it settled into the repertory of that venerable Parisian institution until it ceased operations under its original banner in 1972. In the interim, Manon clocked up 78 performances in its first year, 500 by 1905, 800 by 1913 and 2133 by the time of the Opéra-Comique’s demise.
Werther, meanwhile, is a work of Massenet’s maturity, premiered in February 1892, three months before his 50th birthday. Since it was initially turned down by Carvalho as being ‘too dismal’, Massenet sat on the score for five years, awaiting a suitable opportunity to unveil it in more auspicious circumstances. These finally presented themselves in the shape of a request for a new work from Wilhelm Jahn, director of the Vienna Court Opera, where Manon had notched up more than 100 performances. In its presentation of Werther’s almost neurotic love for the conflicted Charlotte, Massenet’s score creates one of the great depictions of the plight of the outsider in opera.
But, as the revival continues to reveal, there’s so much more to Massenet than Manon and Werther. Thaïs, for instance, based on Anatole France’s recent and (at the time) controversial novel about a monk losing his own faith after converting a courtesan to Christianity, shows Massenet at his most skilful in conjuring atmosphere and justifies d’Indy’s famous comment about the ‘discrete and semi-religious eroticism’ that charges his art. And Don Quichotte, enlivened by the Spanish colour applied lavishly to the score, also suffuses a distinctive and melancholy autumnal warmth suited to a late work by a composer approaching his 70th year. Each of Massenet’s operas has its own distinctive tone and colour; and as his output is once again explored, the rarely performed Sapho may just yet come into its own as one of his darkest, strongest creations.