Jules Massenet: Herodiade (1881)

Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

I decided to change the recording to the 2018 performance from Marseille with Inva Mula as Salome. There are some changes for the better as I wrote the original review at 3 am, but I will admit that as hard as I may try, I’m not loving this opera.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPSPxF1Os-E

PLOT: Jerusalem, circa 30. Incomprehensible plot. Salome has been deserted by her mother Herodiade when she married Herod. Salome has since taken up with Jean (the Baptist) and has fallen into unrequited love with him. Meanwhile Herod is in love with Salome and wants to raise an army to defeat Rome. Thinking he can enlist Jean as a recruiter, he has him arrested and sentenced to death when he refuses. Salome asks to join him in his fate, but Herod ultimately refuses. This whole time the two women have never recognized each other as mother and daughter and when this revelation is made Salome commits suicide.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A courtyard outside Herod’s palace, Jerusalem. (39.5 minutes)

0: The overture *** is rather impressive and evokes a series of emotions from mystery to romance to dramatic grandeur to terror, all of which are leitmotifs of individual characters and will return later in the opera. Possibly the best part of the entire opera, it is lushly orchestrated, and was one of the few things that impressed me in the opera.

4: At first a little holy, the orchestra rolls along almost like we are in Das Rheingold *. There is a sense of grandeur here. Unfortunately the chorus is not so interesting, although we are solidly in a world of the Arabian Nights. 

8, 10: A dancing tune * as the chorus goes about buying and selling their wears, it climaxes ferociously and falls dead in its tracks as Phanuel a Jewish philosopher or priest (?), tells the people to cooperate with the Romans and maintain peace *. There are some nice ideas here but it is still rather low temperature.

14: Salome’s entrance. * She embraks on an okay introductory aria in which she talks about her past to the most mild accompaniment excluding a recurring rumbling from the timpani. Musically it is all over the place, but you will be satisfied with it although its execution is more important than the music here. There is one recurring Salome theme which will come back which we first heard much more tragically in the overture. Her mother Herodiade deserted her to marry Herod and then the Prophet Jean took care of her and she now has the massive hots for him. The chorus of Herod’s followers offstage which follows sounds more like a whirlwind than music.

23: Herod arrives to a pandering ballet/parade sequence which mildly bounces about before turning faux-ardent (a new tune, depicting Herod’s horniness over Salome as he calls out her name repeatedly). It is melodious but also a little disgusting given the incesteous nature of the proceedings and its wontedness *.

25: Herodiade’s furious request for Herod to eliminate Jean *: she tries everything from anger to meek pleading to get him to lop off the prophet’s head. It is well orchestrated, with a sad clarinet popping in at times. Towards the end it gets more sincere, or at least seems to be from the quality of the music.

30: Jean arrives **: a crash of terror wells up from the orchestra. He and Herodiade have a mutual dislike for each other. A short trio of fear and power erupts and Herod and Herodiade flee in terror.

32, 37: The remaining seven and a half minutes of the act consists of a long duet between Jean and Salome.  It starts off a cappella for Jean but the orchestra brings back the sexy gypsy-ish theme that introduced Salome earlier. There is one dreamy tune ** (Salome?) coming from the orchestra (at first in the high strings, then in general). A theme from the prelude comes in on the horns (it will come back whenever Jean is on stage again), this is very loud but also rather good *** as Jean speaks only of a new revolutionary faith after she professes her love for him.

ACT 2: (38 minutes)

Scene 1: Herod’s chambers.

6: After a thunderously brief introduction and some chromaticism in the woodwinds we are in ballet time as the female chorus tries to find a way to get their king to sleep. Their very low temperature orientalist song sounds more appropriate for a trip down the Nile than for Jerusalem until Roman occupation. Herod is depressed on top of being unable to sleep, and a dancer engages in an odd little dance before a Babylonian girl presents him with a philtre which does nothing but padding to the plot and some drug induced visions of Salome for Herod. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for the charming nature of her song *.

8: Herod’s pre-vision of Salome ** is ardent and lyrical, even warm, but has no continuous  melody, rather it consists of multiple themes of varying quality some very good others not. I am begrudgingly giving it a second star for the grand effort of the baritone singing it because the audience appreciates it more than I. The vision itself is serviceable and climaxes mildly, but it is uncomfortable to know that this grown man is in love with a teenager who is the daughter of his wife.

21: Phanuel orders everyone away and tells Herod about how the people are acclaiming Jean as the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. The scene is mostly inert musically until at last a single walking melody comes up which evolves into a series of mini tunes and later when the chorus comes on calling Herod out *.

Scene 2: The Courtyard of the Palace.

29: A stormy male chorus (the original second scene opener) starts the scene off briefly before a sedate march ushers in Herod and Phanuel. Herod decides to declare war on the Romans but their consul, Vitellius, (announced by Herodiade)  tells the Jews that their freedom of religion will be respected and their temple will remain open. It is all sound and fury for a long while. Herodiade’s emotive passages are the most interesting thing here * as the rest seems to too strongely resemble Rienzi. 

35: Now something a little different: the main theme from the prelude turns into a rather  glowing ensemble as Jean, his followers, and Salome come on like flower children and sing about peace and love **. Although not stunning or overtly impactful, it is lush and quieting, a good contrast to the rambling of the last quarter hour. Jean is accompanied by that reprehensible horn again (which I think represents Herodiade?) but he climaxes well on his message (basically the same as during his duet with Salome ending the previous act). It all thunders about for a couple of minutes and then curtain.

ACT 3: (52 minutes)

Scene 1: Phanuel’s house (This and the first scene of the previous act were added to the original five scene version of the opera).

0: Phanuel is introduced by a Klingsor-esque bit of brooding preluding. He asks God what Jean is: human, deity? Good references from the prelude (particularly Jean’s theme) come in that are worth mentioning *.

9: Herodiade arrives and asks Phanuel to predict the future, rather a bad idea, nothing but disaster, also this head groupie of Jean’s is a relative you refuse to recognize. Nonsense says Herodiade (knows he is right though). The sequence broods about for a long time until there is finally a mild climax of melody for the last two and a half minutes of the scene *. Other than to add eleven and a half minutes to the opera’s running time and some details to the otherwise grossly underdeveloped Herodiade-Salome relationship, I am not sure what the point of this scene is.

Scene 2: The Temple.

12: This next scene is the longest of the entire opera, nearly forty minutes divided between a brief solemn entr’acte * followed by an aria for Salome and then her climactic duet with Herod in the first half and then twenty minutes of choral-ballet which is broken up by Jean, who has already been arrested by Herod before the scene starts.

15: After a brief recitative from Salome we get yet another odd Arabian Nights sounding chorus *.

16: Salome’s aria **. Herod has arrested Jean in order to try to win him over to recruit Galileans to help him fight the Romans. The love theme (or is it Salome?) comes up from the woodwinds.

24: Herod comes on. His duet with Salome isn’t bad but takes a while to warm up *. He calls out her name again in a disturbingly beautiful way (as before).

28: Her rejection of him is explosive **, especially after the voice of Jean gives her greater strength and she engages in warfare with the timpani going full blast after he threatens her and Jean with execution. She declares that the man she loves is more powerful than Herod.

30: Soloist hazan and chorus * pray, very solemn and holy. The ballet that follows is mercifully short (2 minutes) and not all that interesting.

38: Vitellius addresses the Jews again and gives Herod power to sentence Jean if he so wishes. Jean is brought in for trial *, traces and allusions to the overture are the best parts of this as much of the scene is hyper-dramatic brooding although it is effective enough.

45: The finale ** is a loud and bustling event apart from Salome’s impassioned pleas to die with Jean (set to harp accompaniment) with Jean’s horn theme penetrating everything in its usual piercing way as he calls upon Herod to do his worst.

ACT 4: (30 minutes)

Scene 1: A subterranean vault.

0: After all the craziness of the last act, we get a calm prelude * in two parts, the first is dance like on a solo violin, the second is a rehash of the Salome-Jean theme.

3: Jean awaits death and ponders his soul **. A nice well constructed piece but no strong tune in spite of how long it is and the high notes. It includes a saxophone solo if you can catch it.

9, 16: Salome arrives. The duet that follows is rather nice, even if it lacks an overall grand melody it does get the point of their relationship across very well *. Watch out for the saxophone again, although the singular melody playing over and over again as Salome recites her way through the next five minutes may drive you a little mad. Then they contemplate immortality *. Soon Jean is taken away to be executed and Salome is sent away to Herod.

Scene 2: The great hall of the palace.

21: A furious ballet (certainly in the wrong place?) is followed by an all-male drinking chorus starts off the scene *. More ballet for some reason (because they can?).

23: Salome comes on and asks Herod to let her be executed too **. This is rather touching. Herodiade gets in on it all as well for once. Four good minutes.

27: The head of Jean is brought on *, and morbidity sets in. Salome decides to take the opportunity to murder Herodiade, who tells her just in time that she is her mother so she stabs herself instead. This conclusion is barely satisfactory and very rushed. Herod is disappointed and Herodiade is exposed, humiliated, and rendered childless, although she wasn’t a very good mother anyway to begin with.

COMMENTS:

Before I get into anything else, am I the only person who thinks that naming this opera Herodiade is bizarre? I know it is in theory based on the story by Gustave Flaubert, but really, is Herodias in much of this thing?

There are far too many plot holes in this thing to redeem it. Apart from Jean, none of the characters motivations make any sense. Salome is a passive groupie until act 3, Herod is a ephebophile, Vitellius is basically pointless as a character, Phanuel is very difficult to comprehend, practically meaningless as his character traits overlap too much with Jean while he has less than half as much stage time, and musically very boring, and Herodiade herself is more of a glamour mezzo role than a dramatic core for the work. Even Jean is a little odd because Massenet seems to be conflating him with Jesus. Dramatically, the opera is a series of seven unrelated tableaux, the only thing connecting them all (or at least most of them) is Salome’s love for Jean. The original structure of the opera was in three acts and five tableaux with the present first scenes of acts two and three added later. The last scene of act two was originally the last of the first act with Salome’s aria in act 3 scene 2 coming at the beginning of act 2 and then the final act is structured identically in both versions. These additional scenes do very little to help the story along, if anything they make it more difficult to follow as nothing really happens at all in either of them. Musically they also don’t add much as the best music is concentrated in the original five tableaux. The story is so simple that the attempts made in padding it out actually damaged it to the point that it makes little dramatic sense. The other glaring problem is the character of Herodiade herself and especially in her relationship to Salome. She has no relationship with her daughter until literally five minutes before the opera is over, and this motivates not a happy reunion but her daughter’s suicide. There is some good music, particularly act 3 scene 2 and some of the sequences for Jean and Salome, but overall it is rather humdrum with the very best of the music consisting of rehashing elements from the overture, which in itself is probably the best part of the score. There are some good things like the way Massenet evokes the spirit of orientalist music and Salome’s love and devotion for Jean and his ultimate acceptance of her love in act 4. Herod’s obsession with Salome, although disturbing, is projected well and is at least believable although if Herodiade dumped her kid on Jean, how does he know her? Granted she is his niece, but that only makes it more creepy. Not so understandable is his desire to overthrow the Romans in Judea. What is his motivation for this? And why did Herodiade leave Salome when she became queen in the first place? This didn’t happen in real life so why is it part of this plot line? It is hard to justify the role of Herodiade as the title role, though, as she is barely present at all in the opera and contributes nothing to the main plot until she admits to being Salome’s mother, and then only to give her daughter a reason to stab herself to death. Most of the plot forwarding revolves around Herod, Salome, and Jean, Herodiade doesn’t even really see Salome as a threat to her marriage even though her husband drools at the young woman. Overall, Massenet does not let us down so much as remains the same throughout the entire event. There is never a moment that I can call “bad” here, but similarly there are only a few moments that are really good. There are no spectacular moments in an opera that easily calls for them except the overture and possibly the first act Salome-Jean duet, possibly. Instead we get intimacy and pageantry sown together without really understanding why and although the former comes off okay, the latter is not quite so effective. The libretto could only be a C at best but the score is probably more of a B+ and at times even A-, so maybe a compromise would give us a B or a B-? I’m not sure.

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3 thoughts on “Jules Massenet: Herodiade (1881)

  1. Hérodiade wasn’t performed for a long time in France; the Opéra management advised Massenet to find someone who could write a dramatic libretto!

    Several fine arias (once famous!) and exoticism don’t really add up to a great opera.

    I like Plasson’s recording, which has a largely Francophone cast. Stay away from the 1984 video recording, which has Caballé and Carreras planted to the spot and not bothering to act.

    It’s annoying that for most people, Massenet outside Werther, Manon, and Thais is limited to this opera, Le Cid (because Domingo – ugh), and possibly Le roi de Lahore and Esclarmonde (because Sutherland). Many of his most interesting works are from late in his career – e.g. Cendrillon, Grisélidis, Chérubin, Roma, Ariane.

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    1. My father used to say that operas were bad plays set to good music. I don’t think that’s always the case, however here it probably is. One can tell in Herodiade that most of the musical ingredients of a great opera are present (although it has its passaging of ornery), and given your rather positive previous review, I was worried that you would pan my review for being too harsh. But that libretto, it is the definition of dreadful. Not the worst, but it is bad and you are right about that Liceu production, it comes off like an opera seria. I’m slowly making my way through Le roi de Lahore, but I have listened to some of Massenet’s later operas (Cleopatre for instance) and I probably should review them. It is ironic that in our age Werther is Massenet’s most performed opera.

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      1. Well, one of the things Wagner was right about was that opera should be good drama as well as good music!

        Massenet had one of the finest senses of theatre of any composer, I believe. Coupled with his understanding of people and mastery of atmosphere
        is why you get that astonishing versatility

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