Jules Massenet: Esclarmonde (1889)

Opera in prologue, four acts, and epilogue. Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

This is one of my favourite Massenet operas and one of only six that I have in my collection. It is low on substance but high on musical marvellousness, a French fairy tale of Byzantine proportions about a medieval Empress/Sorceress who abducts a French count and has her way with him, all while keeping herself veiled. She later gets in trouble with religious authorities and the happy ending is only certain in the epilogue.



Prologue: Before an Iconostasis in the Great Cathedral, Byzantium.

0: The ten minute prologue ** begins with music we will hear again in the epilogue. Organ, church music, Emperor Phorcas of Byzantium says goodbye to his court and armies and announces that his daughter the sorceress Esclarmonde (the most beautiful girl in the entire world whose leitmotif is all over the place in this number) will now be Empress. She is to remain veiled from all males until her husband is chosen, the winner of a tournament for her hand upon her twenty-first birthday. Esclarmonde, who comes out of the iconostasis, unveils one last time amid grand acclaim from the chorus after daddy says good-bye and the scene ends.

ACT 1: Esclarmonde’s chambers in the imperial palace. (23 minutes)

2: Nature music impacts us in the entr’acte with hints of Esclarmonde before we hear her  calling out the name of Roland, le Comte du Blois, in ecstasy. He isn’t there, but she is fantasizing about him **. Her sister Parseis is worried about her, but can she not use her magic to bring him to her? No, she does not wish to use magic on him.

9: We are mostly just floating on a seabed of saturated melody until Eneas, Parseis’ intended arrives and Esclarmonde has to cover up. Eneas has a rather pleasing theme ** and there is another which is close to what will be the Roland

13: The simple melody of the Parseis-Eneas duetting as Esclarmonde reveals in their joyous young love *.

15: Eneas leaves and Esclarmonde can take no more, she wants Roland, tonight! **

17: Brooding strings herald the coming of Esclarmonde summoning all her powers on a high D*.

18: Esclarmonde and Parseis spy on Roland from a magic glass and with some vocal gymnastics from the former we hear about the hunt for wild boar (it is always wild boar in French operas for some reason). An enchanted ship arrives to take Roland to the magic island where Esclarmonde will go for her romantic tryst with him **. Esclarmonde calls on the spirits of the air to take her chariot through the air to her husband. Again with the high D.

ACT 2: (35 minutes.)

Scene 1: The Enchanted Island.

0: A rather attractive entr’acte * proceeds until a chorus of female spirits is heard singing chromatic scales.

4: Roland himself finally arrives, totally unknowing of what is in store for him. This is all rather fetching **. Harps come on and he slowly falls asleep.

8: Esclarmonde arrives to a most ardent orchestral accompaniment ***. She orders that time pass much more slowly.

9: Roland awakens with Esclarmonde’s kiss and the Esclarmonde theme returns on a solo violin ***. Esclarmonde fills him in on the deal: if he pledges faith and love to her she will help him to defeat anyone. He can never know who she is or see her face. If he doesn’t accept her terms she will go immediately. He asks her to stay.

15: The first part of the love duet *** flows so naturally but with a just a tinge of fear also they start the nuptial hymn with the female chorus in the background.

19: The entr’acte as the scenes change depicting the night of love **. I don’t need to explain further but look out for the high strings towards the ending crescendo as we go into the next scene.

Scene 2: A room in the castle on the enchanted island.

22: Roland’s address to Esclarmonde after their love making *** is one of the most beautiful in opera and the melody will return later in the opera. Esclarmonde is happiness, adorable.

26: Esclarmonde gets some psychic news that the Saracens have invaded Blois and Roland is needed back there to save his people and the King Cleomer *. Roland reluctantly agrees but Esclarmonde vows that every night she will come to him for more sexy trysts as they are now married (how is never made clear exactly). Roland has a nice long high note.

29: Virgins bring in a magic sword for Roland to a noble sounding military march **. It will break in the hands of a man who is foresworn.

31: Roland addresses the glowing sword and goes into some Christian stuff about how it is the symbol of his faith He must part but Esclarmonde promises carnal delights yet again as the Virgins tell Roland to GO! Orchestral crescendo as the curtain falls **.

ACT 3: (42 minutes).

Scene 1: A scene of destruction never Blois.

0: Menacing military music, Blois is in trouble. The chorus of people come on with old King Cleomer who can do nothing to stop the Saracens. This is probably the most classical sounding sequence in the opera **.

3: The Bishop of Blois (who is the closest thing to a villain here) comes on telling the people to trust in God *.

6: Roland arrives and vows to defeat the Saracens **. The chorus explodes in ecstasy over the idea of victory and the battle occurs.

8: The Bishop leads the women and boys in a prayer *.

11: Roland is victorious and Cleomer offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to Roland which he declines. Everyone is shocked. Cleomer says that if any other man had insulted him he would have taken revenge, but for the Roland, who has saved everyone, he pardons him *. The Bishop vows to get to the bottom of everything.

16: The people acclaim Roland yet again, but he wants to get away from everyone in the most melodic way ***. There is yet another entr’acte, this time based on a more mild form of the love theme, as the scenes change.

Scene 2: A room in King Cleomer’s castle.

20: The people are still praising Roland from outside the castle. Roland takes no pleasure in their acclaim, desiring only the embraces of Esclarmonde **.

27: The Bishop tires everything to get Roland to tell him why he has rejected the King’s daughter. This number is almost a watershed of all of the earlier melodies and the soloists float on an orchestral bed of melody again. Eventually Roland confesses, as in the sacrament, his vow to a wonderful return of the love theme from act 2 **.

30: It is possible that the Bishop really thinks that Esclarmonde is evil, as a noble melody comes up just as the Bishop tells Roland that he will not yet absolve him ***. Roland seems terrified as he prays to God and there is a rather melodious duet between the two men.

32: Esclarmonde comes with coloratura menace to greet a guilty Roland ** who basically admits that confession is a sham while he tries to convince himself that he was talking only to God and has not broken his vow. God doesn’t think so six minutes later though…

37: Esclarmonde arrives in person this time. Just as quickly the Bishop along with an army of priests show up and terrorize Esclarmonde thinking her to be a demon and perform an exorcism. It is only when her veil is torn off by the Bishop that everything goes to heck and Roland looks upon Esclarmonde and sees how beautiful she is, but it is all too late. He will never see her again ***. This air is passionate and full of bittersweet sorrow.

40: In the brief finale, the priests and the bishop go through their dumb exorcism, Esclarmonde declares Roland accursed for his betrayal and Roland recognizes that all is lost to him as she disappears in a whirlwind and a chromatic chord ***.

ACT 4: A forest. (33 minutes)

0: A nice nature prelude *, about two minutes in we get something that sounds a little like  the more excited music in Werther. A Herald announces the that the Tournament which will determine who will wed Esclarmonde and become Byzantine Emperor will take place that very day.

8: Eneas and Parseis show up, presumably lost, looking for the cave where Phorcas now lives (remember all of them?!?). There is a return of their love music **.

10, 15: Phorcas comes out of hiding rather grumpy and gets filled in by his younger daughter what wild Esclarmonde has been up to shacking up with Roland every night. There are notes of the love duet here * but most of the rest is brooding until Parseis brings Roland into the story she furiously relates to her father * all the while she and Eneas beg for mercy from Phorcas who refuses.

16: Phorcas summons the spirits to bring Esclarmonde to him amid thunder and lightening *.

18: There is a hint of the love island motif here * as she goes on about how how the spirits took her back to the island to sleep.

23: The spirits declare that unless Esclarmonde renounces Roland forever, Phorcas must kill him **! This leads to an a cappella quartet for Phorcas, Parseis, Eneas, and Esclarmonde.

25: Esclarmonde contemplates that Roland will commit suicide if she lies and tells him that she no longer loves him ***.

27: The others leave and Esclarmonde awaits Roland who soon arrives in ecstasy upon seeing her. She tells him that they must part, she has lost her powers and her throne and is unworthy of his love **

29, 33: Roland does not believe her in a rather dapper air *** which rapidly turns into a lovely duet. They almost end up fleeing together. But she must leave him in order to save his life. The spirits are appeased and Roland is devastated as Esclarmonde vanishes with Phorcas and the orchestra crashes as Roland goes off to die in the tournament **.

EPILOGUE: Same as the prologue, before the iconostasis of the Cathedral of Byzantium. (10 minutes)

7: Phorcas greets the assembly as he did before. The people venerate Esclarmonde as she emerges from the Iconostasis. They all wonder who the victor is as when he comes in his visor is down. With one word from Roland Esclarmonde recognizes his voice and know that he has won but he is utterly destroyed at this point and declares his name is Despair, Sorrow, and that Death as deserted him. In one last ditch attempt, after Roland has refused all things and claims to only desire one thing (obviously Esclarmonde) Phorcas has the veils lifted and everyone beholds her beauty. Roland is shocked that under the veil is the only person he would want. He reprises his ardent song to her, this time she follows him and everyone is so wildly happy ***.


Many people accuse this opera of being Massenet’s most Wagnerian score. I am not sure that that accusation is fair though. Although the orchestra is huge and there is obvious usage of leitmotif technique, the music in itself remains very much within the world of French opera spectacle. The thin plot does not remotely border into the world of Wagnerian music drama, and overall the feel is that of high medieval romance and magic. There are weaknesses in the score, at least two times (the beginning of act 1 and the Bishop’s interview with Roland in act 3 scene 2) during which the orchestra and soloists basically float around on a bed of melody that doesn’t go anyway although it is good music. The Bishop is also the most boring and frustrating character, and his religious music gives the opera its only boring moments. Phorcas does briefly have moments where he sounds like Wotan, but these are mostly in how low and quiet the orchestra gets while he is on. The plot is a bit silly with its magic and spirits floating about, and uncomplicated, but it is very easy to feel the genuine love and affection Esclarmonde and Roland have for each other to a depth that is, although not unique, very rare even in opera. Their love is also very enjoyable to the viewer and believable in spite of the magic. Parseis and Eneas are okay, although there really isn’t enough of them.  If I can fault the opera it would be for its singular focus, it is all about the passionate and eternal love of Esclarmonde and Roland and apart from the complications involved from religious and supernatural authorities, there isn’t much else to the story other than torrid opera sexuality depicted in the most romantic and French way imaginable. The score, on the other hand, is probably Massenet’s richest, and the only time the opera dulls is when the orchestra disappears entirely and the singers are left a cappella, but even then Massenet surprises us. Esclarmonde is a forgotten classic, A-.

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