Jules Massenet: Le Mage (1891)

Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

This is probably the last opera written specifically in the grand opera genre. It comes complete in the traditional five act package with a full ballet in the fourth act, historical-fictional culture clash, and religion, here Zoroastrian monotheistic dualism vs. Persian polytheism. It may be the last grand opera, but it was not the last successful one. Mostly due to the fact that it requires expensive and massive stage effects, a pagan statue has to give off fire among other things, this work, which is from dead centre in Massenet’s most productive and creative period, has only been produced three times, ever. After its run at the Paris Opera in 1891 of a respectable 31 performances, troubled by the replacement of the tenor in the title role twice, it was again produced at The Hague in 1896 and then disappeared completely until it was given in concert form at Saint-Etienne in 2012. The recording is of that production, although there is one famous tenor aria <<O parais>> which has been recorded many times and known throughout the 20th century.

PLOT: Persia, 2500 BCE. Zorastre (tenor) is in love with the queen of the Touranians Anahita but is relentlessly pursued by Varedha, priestess of the goddess of lust Jahi and daughter of the High Priest of the Daevis, Amrou. Romantic complications ensue when the Persian king decides he wants to marry Anahita after Zorastre is banished for a crime he did not commit involving a lie spread by Varedha that he had promised to marry her. Meanwhile Zorastre has become a religious leader who has found spiritual enlightenment as the prophet of Ahura Mazda.

NOTE: Although the complete recording is only available from Palazzo Bru Zane, segments of the opera are up on YouTube.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The military camp of Zoroaster near the Persian capital of Bakhti, groups of prisoner Touranians huddle about. (26 minutes)

0: The introduction consists of an orchestra form of a sad folk song *** that is sung, first by a Touranian prisoner and then by the chorus of Touranians (an Aryan central-asian people) first right after him and then throughout the act. The Touranian prisoner (tenor) sings about 90 seconds in. A Persian captain rebukes them for singing and they declare that they sang it while in battle as well. Six minutes in Amrou, the Persian High Priest, arrives and orders Zorastre’s slave to announce him, the Touranians recognize him as the traitor to got their king to rebel against the Persians and they continue with their haunting song. The priest is told that Zorastre is at war council and can not be interrupted. A rebel leader curses the day.

12: Varedha, Amrou’s daughter who has accompanied her father and a priestess in her own right (to Jahi, goddess of lust), blesses the day fantasizing about being the object of Zoroastre’s love and enjoying carnal delights with him (which she isn’t and she won’t to her chagrin). She had been bound to a vow of chastity as a priestess but now that he is a military victor raised to the level and status of a king, he can free her and she confesses her love for him. He tells her off in some strong recitative about how the goddess she worships is horrible in his eyes but she tries to romance him by asking him why he resists her and Jahi **. This also backfires, he says goodbye and she mourns her dead dreams of love.

15: Amrou returns and tells his daughter that not all hope is lost in the Daevas. He orders her back to the Persian capital and contemplates what might cause Zorastre to have such a distaste for his daughter and he spies upon the Queen of the Touranians Anahita, with whom he discovers Zorastre has fallen in love *.

18: Zorastre comes on and pleads his suit to Anahita, who bemoans her fate and that of her people, but Zorastre sweetly tries to convince her of his love **.

23: Anahita hears the tragic song of her people again **. Zorastre tries to distract her with  loverly thoughts. The prisoner is heard once again and Anahita joins in the call this time. “My people are captives and my heart as well” she declares as Zorastre declares his love and the act ends.

ACT 2: 34 minutes.

SCENE 1: A subterranean cavern below the temple of Jahi.

3: A dark brooding introduction collides with the chorus of joyous Persians awaiting the return of Zorastre to the city and Varedha bemoans her miserable life. Things get a bit better when she wishes against hope that the joyous cries could also be hers *, but sorrow returns. The thing about Varedha is that you start to believe that she genuinely loves Zorastre, and this becomes slightly painful, especially as she hints that she is about to go and commit suicide.

5: Amrou arrives and stops his daughter, he wants revenge but she does not. She still loves Zorastre in spite of his rejection of her but Amrou wants destructive revenge. The victory march can be heard above *.

9: Amrou reveals that Zorastre is in love with another woman, and that is the reason for his rejection of Anahita **. She can certainly accept that Zorastre does not desire love at all, but for him to love another woman, that she can not tolerate and so the two leave the cavern.

SCENE 2: A great square in Bakhti.

13: An orchestral interlude flows into the next scene and there is a good march tune as the herald does his thing, as does the King and the chorus praise Zorastre **.

16: Zorastre arrives driving a chariot *.

18: Zorastre’s song of love as he presents Anahita (who now comes in on a litter) to the King. Sweeter than honey, she is the only prize he desires amid all the wealth he presents to the King ***. NOTE: This is “O parais”.

22: Anahita lifts her veil before the King and tells him that if he will grant her to wed Zorastre that she will gladly forget the throne she has lost in military conquest *. The King is impressed with her beauty.

24: Amrou accuses Zorastre of breaking his supposed promise to marry Varedha, who backs up her father. Anahita, the King, and everyone else other than Zorastre (who denies everything and rightly calls Amrou and Anahita liars) are utterly confuses as to who to believe **.

29: The climax of the scene, which mostly consists of father and daughter lying through their teeth to the King and the priests now backing them up as Anahita revokes her desire to wed Zorastre who sees the world crashing down on him for no good reason, consists of a single strong theme that sounds a lot like something that should be in Disney’s Aladdin ***, almost romantic tragic fairy tale music.

32: Zorastre has had enough of the short lived and fleeting fame that has brought him nothing but lies hurled at him and his life destroyed by polytheists, including Anahita who shocks him with her lack of faith in him. He declares that there is only One God (monotheism is born!) and the rest of lies. The people order him to leave the city immediately in banishment for the crime of insulting literally everyone, which they rather deserve under these circumstances ***.

ACT 3: The Holy Mountain. (29 minutes)

0: A magnificent opening to the act *** of mighty power at first then sweet faithfulness. Then stormy music as the magi huddle about the rocks and await the prophecies of the Mage. This is a strikingly classical piece. The magi do their meditative thing sotto voce. About four and a quarter minutes in Zorastre is revealed praising Ahura Mazda to a harp accompaniment. The magi continue their thing, as does Zorastre.

8: Zorastre goes into a rather musically brilliant rundown of the basic theological principles of Zoroastrianism ***, an ardent melody flows throughout.

10: About two minutes into this there is a melody on a solo violin which I think means Ahura Mazda or truth or something, anyways it will return in act five, but here it forms the second half of Zorastre’s sermonizing ***. He motions for them to leave him, they go.

15: Left alone, Zorastre has a crisis of faith and thinks about Anahita, but no, he shakes himself out of it **

19: Varedha arrives and although Zorastre at first believes she is sent to tempt him he takes pity on her and promises her forgiveness in exchange for repentance. She readily admits remorse over the false betrothal she and her father lied about to ruin him but she will not stop her persuit of him, she still is in love with Zorastre and she will not deny it **. She declares that she would commit countless crimes to have him. Her father has used magic to gain followers for him and if he said the word, she could even have the King killed and he Zorastre declared king. When even this does not get him she tells him that alive or dead she will love him. He is about to strike her.

24: Anahita then has a rather nice bit about how a strike from Zorastre would be like a gentle loving kiss **. She tells him that Anahita is going to be forced to marry the King and she tires to use this information to get him to return, but again she fails and he orders her from him all the while she declares that he will eventually come back to Bakhdi to save Anahita because he loves her.

ACT 4: The interior of the temple of Jahi. (30 minutes)

0: The ballet * consists of eleven movements. The opening is surprisingly good with an off stage chorus calling out “Jahi” and heavy brass. The dances vaguely give one a romantic image of life 4000 years ago. Some highlights include:

4: Allegretto con moto *.

6: Allegro Moderato *.

7: Lente, is somewhat chromatic.

9: Allegro Moderato *.

13: Andantino is rather ardent.

15: Allegretto con moto sounds like it was written, at least in part, by Johann Strauss.

17: With the last part, Allegro Vivo, there is a musical recap of the best bits from the earlier dances, and then the chorus returns to its “Jahi” cry and the act proper is finally able to begin. The “Jahi” thing is starting to get annoying.

20: Amrou calls the priests to the wedding ceremony, the chorus continues with its Jahi cry, this time acting as an a cappella wedding processional hymn *.

23: The King declares Anahita to be all sort of beautiful things before the wedding ceremony gets seriously underway. She then rejects the idea of marrying the King *.

24: She asks him that if he loves her as he says that he would respect her wishes not to marry **. The Touranian folk theme makes a subtle appearance *.

27: The extreme agitation of the last minutes of the act * as the King tries to force the wedding on Anahita, Amrou pronounces the marriage without Anahita’s consent and she  terrifyingly declares that her people will kill everyone present to avenge their Queen being married off against her will. Varedha reveals right after her father pronounces the vows binding that she has deliberately had Anahita forcibly married to the King so that when Zorastre returned to rescue her she would be another man’s wife as revenge for him spurning her. Everyone, including the Persians are shocked by then.

29: The Touranians rise up in arms, attack and invade the temple (which they have also just lit on fire) in a flat minute (it is all over in under 75-seconds) avenging their Queen’s forced nuptials by killing all of the Persians, Amrou and the King himself among them and leaving only Varedha alive (albeit mortally wounded) after she attempts to stab Anahita (who sings the Touranian battle cry and separates herself from the others in the massacre while ending on a high D!). A very fast but oddly satisfying ending to the act ***.

ACT 5: The same as act four, but in complete ruin from burning, general mallee, dead bodies lay about the ruins, Varedha inert on the ground, but still barely alive, etc. (18 minutes)

0: An absolutely stunning but subtle prelude *** that almost sounds like a test drive for the Meditation in Thais, based on the romantic fairy tale-like theme from the act 2 ensemble scene.

4: Zorastre does come to Bakhdi, but only after the city has been totally destroyed. His long aria (almost six minutes and a third of the entire act) describes the total destruction, the death, bodies littering the ground ***. He notices that Varedha’s eyes blink, but he thinks that she too is dead (not quite).

11: He hears the Touranian war trumpets in the distance and a chariot comes on, Anahita comes on. She alone is alive and they embrace. To the Ahura Mazda theme he gives her a lilting sermon on how his god is the god of love and nature and happiness **.

13: They realize that Varedha is not dead yet *. Anahita wants to flee but Zorastre declares that Ahura Mazda will protect.

14.30: In the last three minutes *** or so Varedha calls upon Jahi to cause the idol to come to life and breath fire down upon the two lovers. This is when the amazing special effects are supposed to take place amid Anahita screaming and Zorastre and Varedha engaging in a duel of sorts. The temple is surrounded in flames and the idol falls into the earth. Varedha thinks she is triumphant but Zorastre calls upon his god to make a safe path for his Mage, this happens, Varedha is vanquished and dies as the lovers escape to the safety of the awaiting Touranian troops. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This is a rather entertaining opera. I really don’t know of any non-biblical operas that are set so early in human recorded history as this one. Massenet takes advantage of the exotica the story gives him. There are points at the begins of the first three acts where it is hard to find specific parts to give ratings to as the music tends to blend so well. The opera starts on a strong note (the haunting and important Touranian folk song) and continues throughout mostly. Of particular mention I must bring up two segments that are the strongest in the work namely the ending of act 2 from Zorastre’s <<O parais>> and then the entire prayer service and sermon of the Magi that makes up the first 15 minutes of act 3. Another great highlight would be the beautifully haunting prelude to act 5 and Zorastre’s aria following it. The weakest music, and this is probably a good thing, would be the ballet. Until the fourth act, one actually does feel some sympathy for Varedha as she appears to genuinely love Zorastre and her father obviously turns her evil, in the end you really don’t feel so bad about what happens to her or to the other Persians other than Zorastre who thankful dumped them all in time because the King and especially Amrou are jerk offs whose deaths are actually rather satisfying dramatically. I could replay the one minute finale to the fourth act all day long! It is a shame that this opera is so neglected, it has a sort of a Saturday morning cartoon feel to it, albeit adult. I guess a fire-breathing statue that engulfs an already half-torn down set is just asking too much. It has a rather good libretto with a balance of romantic, religious, patriotic, and tragic themes Varedha is a good study in jealousy. Zorastre’s religious teachings here are actually rather inspiring and more than just the usual “do good, be good, get happy”. I wished they had gotten a stronger tenor to sing the role though. Anahita should have been more trusting of Zorastre though. It has no comedy, but it doesn’t need comedy. The “Djahi” cries do get annoying fast though but without the comparatively boring ballet (maybe make it a 3 minute prelude?) this would be an unjustly neglected A.

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