Jules Massenet: La navarraise (1894)

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 47 minutes.


Massenet was a man who liked to genre hop, a lot. His earliest successes were grand operas (Le roi de Lahore, Herodiade), before he hit the jackpot of immortality with Manon. This success was followed by more grand opera (Le cid, Esclarmonde, Le mage), Romantic drama with vague religious references (the kids singing Christmas carols in Werther, the combination of sex and faith in Thais), and he ended his career with three operas waiting to be taken out of the oven (the vulgar medieval farce of Panurge, the Breton myth of Amadis, and a return to grand opera in Cleopatre). Here then was Massenet’s foray into the seasonally popular verismo, set in 1874 during the Carlist War in Spain in a village outside Bilboa, this work has been termed by many to be an unjustly neglected minor masterpiece. Incidentally, Massenet dedicated the vocal score to his own wife. This review is of the 1975 recording with Marilyn Horne.

PLOT: Bilboa, Spain, 1874. During the Carlist War, Anita, a poor girl has to raise money if she wants to marry the man she loves Araquil because his father Remigio says so. She makes a deal with a soldier name Garrido to kill the Carlist general Zuccaraga (never seen) for 2000 duros, the sum she needs to marry Araquil. A soldier named Ramon alerts Araquil that Anita has ran off to the Carlist camp and he suspects that she has a lover there. After an intermezzo, Anita returns, the general having been slain by her and she collects on the money (swearing never to reveal the circumstances of how she got it) but Araquil is brought in mortally wounded. He had attempted to follow her and was fatally shot. At first he thinks she got the money from prostitution, but she refuses to tell him the truth, he dies just as he realizes she killed the general for the money, and she goes mad, at first attempting suicide but stopped by a Madonna statue.


ACT 1: A battlefield near a village near Bilboa. (31 minutes)

0: The prelude ***, is a stunning piece of war film music, striking more for its context than for its melodiousness, which is good but not amazing.

3: The next item of note is a strangely classical sounding aria for Garrido *.

7: Anita has an encounter with Ramon, a soldier who comes up later in the story. She has a little prayer to the Virgin *, but be alert or you will miss it.

9: The Anita-Araquil love duet **, includes a glowing shimmer from the upper strings.

13: Araquil’s father Remigio shows up and we get some more background on this whole dowry situation, there isn’t any musical to note though. Alone, the lovers are left to duet against a series of castanets and other assorted Spanish orchestral features **.

15: Anita’s desire to get married song **, an explosive trio follows and then some brooding recitative which forwards the plot a little.

20: Now something a little different, instead of everything sounding like mid to late Verdi we get something sounding a bit like Wagner and then a skittish bit *. Garrido thinks out loud that if someone will kill Zuccaraga for him he will pay 2000 duros. He sees Anita sneaking about and she takes him up on his offer because she needs the cash fast.

25: Araquil’s mini love song, because, doesn’t every verismo opera have one? *

27: The fatal encounter *, tenor to tenor, of Ramon and Araquil. The former has just seen Anita running off to the enemy camp, is she a spy? Araquil suspects the worst (stupid, also unfounded) that she is unfaithful.

29: The act ends with a three minute Spanish cabaret act by a baritone soldier named Bustamente. It is a good if low key piece of local colour, and probably based on a real Spanish tune as well *. Ramon ends up calling the men back to the barracks when the bugles call.

ACT 2: The same. (16 minutes)

0: The intermezzo is a naturalistic piece ** titled “Nocturne” which I suppose it is, tinged with Spanish loveliness and only traces of the fact that Anita is killing some general somewhere. It is rather low temperature but given the hysterics of earlier, is that a bad thing?

4, 7, 9, 13: So gun shots are heard, breaking up the quiet and Anita comes on, she has killed the Carlist general and collects her bounty-hunter money to a flourish from the orchestra *. She promises Garrido never to reveal where she got the money. A volley of church bells is heard in the distance, someone else is dying, but who? The orchestra takes on a rather holy sound *. Anita is not so thrilled about her money anymore. Yet another orchestral explosion comes up as Araquil comes on dying on a stretcher *. Anita can not believe that he is dying right in front of her. She has killed for him but he followed her off into the battlefield and got shot for her. The death scene is rather ornery as Araquil accuses Anita of being a prostitute (she can say nothing other than that she has don’t nothing wrong, subjective surely). The scene finally lightens up as Anita says “La navarraise” *.

14: Remigio comes on finding his son in his last agony **. This second half of the death scene is more subtle and less ornery and more brooding.

15: Then suddenly as the opera rounds the 90-second mark, we get more bell toll but also the most sedate mad scene in operatic history ***. She laughs, Garrido says “La follie” “Poor mad girl” and then the orchestra gives out one last mad crash. The end.


This is a remarkable little work. It’s range, given its miniature size, is phenomenal going from war drama, to romance (tragedy and melodrama), to Spanish dance music. The best music is at the start and finish, the best of the rest consisting mostly of the Anita and Araquil’s music and the orchestral nocturne. What remains is still entertaining. Overall an unjustly neglected A that deserves to be performed more.

One response to “Jules Massenet: La navarraise (1894)”

  1. A gripping little work, with more drama than many operas twice (or even ten) times its size – proving that it’s not the length that counts, it’s what you do with it!

    Liked by 1 person

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