chiefly remembered for two operatic works: Manon
and, perhaps, another four: Hérodiade
. In fact his output in the genre
was much larger - running to some 25 stage works. Much of this output
has been unjustly neglected and forgotten. On the evidence of this CD
and the essays in the accompanying book, Thérèse
passionate, violent and
fast moving, is definitely
due for serious re-consideration. It is largely unappreciated how diverse
and original most of Massenet’s operatic works were. He was never
one to rest on his laurels and each of his operas demonstrates an eagerness
to experiment and to keep abreast of current fashions. Thérèse
in the turbulent, bloody days of the French Revolution, embraces numerous
musical styles. These hark back to 18th
and refinement, to the dramatic and even to the melodramatic style of
Wagner. His gift for naturalism keeps pace with Italian verismo
(Puccini’s La bohème
) and its French equivalents
including Gustav Charpentier’s Louise
, a love story set
amongst the Parisian working classes. It may be remembered that Massenet
was the teacher and mentor of this Charpentier.
was premiered, to publicity fanfares, at
the Monte Carlo Opera House instead of at the Opéra-Comique in
Paris as originally intended. There were many subsequent performances
all over France and further afield before its Parisian premiere in 1911.
The story of Thérèse
is a triangle love story.
Act 1 opens at the estate purchased, at auction, by André Thorel
on behalf of his friend, the Marquis Armand de Clerval who has fled
the events of the Revolution. Thorel has married Thérèse
and they are living in the Clerval family home to save it from looting
and with the intention of restoring it to Armand when peace returns.
Thérèse and Armand have been secretly in love and unbeknown
to her Armand is now in the grounds of the château hoping to see
Thérèse before joining the Royalist uprising. André
is a libertarian and a member of the Girondin party. As he is attending
to some soldiers passing nearby, Armand meets Thérèse
and declares his passion for her but loyal to André, she resists.
André joins them and embraces his friend Armand. An official
interrupts and half recognises Armand but André vouches for his
friend saying he is his companion, his brother.
Act 2 transfers the action to Paris where Armand is being sheltered
by André and Thérèse in their apartment. Increasing
violence and bloodshed causes them to fear more and more for Armand’s
life. Added to all this danger, the mob is now turning on the Girondins
placing them in danger of the guillotine. André has organised
a safe conduct pass to allow Armand to escape. He hands this over and
goes off to join his Girondin friends. Armand begs Thérèse
to go with him. At length she weakens but then Morel their janitor tells
them the dreaded news that André has been arrested. Thérèse
persuades Armand to leave promising to join him later. Then looking
out of the window she sees to her horror André is in a tumbrel
passing on the way to the Conciergerie and to his doom. Wifely duty
now dominates her feelings. She opens wide the window and cries out
- “Vive le roi”. She is taken away and dies with her husband.
All the artists in this recorded live performance demonstrate dedication,
commitment and enthusiasm to show this short opera to its best advantage.
Mezzo-soprano Nora Gubisch colours her timbre to voice all the contradictory
emotions from torn loves and fears for both men through these turbulent
events. Notable are her gentle musings in Act I in the château
gardens as leaves flutter down to an ornamental pond, the amorous exchanges
with Armand and the extraordinary finale when she abandons singing and
in spoken word declaims “Vive le Roi! ... Ô mort! Ouvre
tes bras! Marchons!” to Massenet’s dramatic sound-effects
of crowds roaring their disapproval, rifle butts crashing to the ground
and snare drums rolling. Armand as sung by American tenor Charles Castronovo
is superbly ardent and baritone Étienne Dupuis is the epitome
of heroic stoicism.
The 112-page hardback book, presented in French and English in well-designed
separate sections not only contains the full libretto and a story synopsis,
but also numerous illustrations including pictures of the original Monte
Carlo production, and five short essays; one an appreciation of the
Monte Carlo production by Gabriel Fauré, no less. The other essays
cover the richness and diversity of Massenet’s operatic output,
the productions of Thérèse
, and women and revolution in French opera.
It is to be hoped that this very enterprising set will encourage further
productions of Thérèse
. Inevitably, it would have
to be partnered with a short-ish companion. My choice would be for Puccini’s
another work about feminine self-sacrifice.
This is the third instalment in Palazzetto Bru Zane’s Opéra
. The other two volumes are Amadis
by Johann Christian Bach and La Mort d’Abel
by Rodolphe Kreutzer. Volume 4 is Renaud
by Antonio Sacchini.