Jules Massenet: Le Cid (1885)

Opera en quatre actes et dix tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes.


Image: Wikimedia.

I’m doing some composite work here: This review is based on the 2011 Marseilles production with Roberto Alagna with supplemental comments for cuts that were included in the 2001 Washington production with Placido Domingo (for instance the entire ballet was cut from the 2011, consisting of about half the cuts made in that production). There are cuts in the 2001 (the overture is cut down by half whereas it is complete in the 2011), but this earlier production is also more faithful to the original scenario of Corneille’s drama (and ten minutes longer), whereas the 2011 seems to be an attempt at creating the opera anew in someone’s image and likeness.

SETTING: Medieval Spain. Chimene, the daughter of the slain Count of Gormas, spends most of the opera going through a lesson in futility begging for justice on her father’s killer, her own fiancé Rodrigue.


2001, Domingo:


2011, Alagna:



ACT 1:

0: The overture * includes most of the main musical themes from the opera, but I find it a little ornery in spite of its moments of fanfare and romantic lyricism. About five minutes in it has a false ending and goes into some tranquil Spanish-sounding music.

Scene 1: A hall in the home of Count de Gormas.

18: The opening ten minute scene begins with much narrative forwarding amid constant military fanfare. The Count is surprised that the King is to make the young Rodrigue as knight but does not object to his daughter Chimene’s marriage to the young man (odd?) She is left alone to think about her beloved but nothing really happens until the Infanta (who might be placed under the Count’s guardianship) arrives and tells Chimene that she too has the hots for Rodrigue, but, being a King’s daughter, protocol restricts her from ever contemplating pressing her suit upon him so she is in full support of Chimene’s marriage to him *.

Scene 2: The royal palace.

23, 27, 43: Bells, church organ, a mix of triumph and religious opens the act. Rodrigue himself comes in to a neat little march tune *. The oath-taking feels very overblown but Rodrigue’s sword aria isn’t so bad, including his invocation ** to St. James of Compostela (who seems to be referenced a lot in this scene) which takes forever to warm up but climaxes well as he swears to defend Spain and its freedom (which I guess means avoidance of Islamization?). Rodrigue and the ladies of the court leave. The King makes Don Diegue, Rodrigue’s father, the guardian of the Infanta, which prompts the Count de Gormas to beat him up and a drawn out ‘woe is me’ revenge aria from Diegue as Rodrigue is heard taking vows off-stage. Rodrigue comes on and is told by his father what has happened and that he must take revenge on Chimene’s father. He doesn’t greet this bit of news very well *. Chimene is heard off-stage as the act comes to a close.

ACT 2: The same?

1, 10: Rodrigue is rightly troubled by what he is going to do *. Eventually he encounters the old man and runs him through. They fight off stage (which makes things even dumber than they would otherwise be). The chorus finds the Count’s body, Don Diegue tries to give credit to his son, but he is horrified with what he has done. Chimene comes on * and rightfully freaks out that her father has been murdered in the street (wouldn’t anyone?). The chorus goes into a mindless Requiem. Chimene demands to know the name of her father’s murderer, information she would probably have preferred to not learn.

{Here we should have the famous fourteen minute ballet **, even if it does totally screw up the dramatic flow because, there isn’t much of one to begin with, dramatic flow that is. It consists of a air for the Infanta followed by seven dances based on Spanish themes: Castillane, Andalouse, Aragonaise, Aubade, Catalane, Madrilène, Navarraise.}

13, 20, 27: The King and the Infanta arrive, Chimene demands justice for her father’s murder *. She will get none. Don Diegue actually tries to justify the assassination in an aria that will not get a star. The people are all against her: it was an honour killing, Rodrigue is cleared. An ensemble develops ** when Rodrigue arrives, the only bit of plotting here is that now the Infanta thinks she has a chance at Rodrigue finally for some reason, although what she wants with a murderer, even an acquitted one, is beyond me. A Moorish envoy arrives with a declaration of war from his master Boabdil (“Moorish” music follows the envoy in and out). The King is furious with Rodrigue for killing his bravest general, but Don Diegue declares that Rodrigue can replace the Count. Chimene is the only person who is not thrilled and she runs off cursing everyone as Rodrigue is declared leader of the Spanish forces *.

ACT 3:

Scene 1: Chimene’s apartments.

4: Finally a scene with at least some pathos ** as Chimene contemplates how everyone except her is just plain rotten.

8: The rest of the scene consists of a good duet between Chimene and Rodrigue **. Conflicting emotions: they both obviously still love each other (Rodrigue’s feelings have never really been in doubt), but Chimene logically can not forgive her father’s killer (honour system goes both ways).

Scene 2: Rodrigue’s camp.

22: Spanish soldiers sing and drink, but when Rodrigue arrives some of them want to leave, others want to stay.

[There should be a “Moorish Rhapsody” * here in which Muslim maidens are sent to distract the Spanish soldiers away from the advancing Muslim army.]

An argument ensues *, which is broken up when Rodrigue orders half of the men out of the room.

27: Rodrigue’s prayer *** which is answered by St. James as a sign of impeding victory.

34: Rodrigue orders the attack **.

ACT 4: The Royal Palace, Grenada.

0: An entr’acte *.

3, 7, 11, 15: Don Diegue greets the news of his son’s death content that he died courageously in battle * and orders all but Chimene and the Infanta out of his sight. This is surprisingly good, but it is all rather half-logical because right afterwards it is revealed that Rodrigue has in fact survived the battle *. He has been given the name of “Cid” by the Muslims he has defeated and is offered anything he wants from the King. But there is only one thing he could possibly want: for Chimene to pass judgement upon him *. She finds herself unable to answer him either positively or negatively so he threatens to commit suicide right then and there.  She forgives him and all ends happily *, if stupidly. Curtain.


There are some good numbers in this opera. Rodrigue’s aria in act one, the ballet and pre-envoy ensemble in act 2, most of act three (by far the best act), and Don Diegue’s aria in act 4. Yet, the thing that is so shocking about this is that one is surrounded by fanfare, and could not possibly be more bored! The other problem with the opera is that it is far too simple a story for a four act structure. There isn’t much of a narrative and what there is of one moves at a snails pace. This is especially true of the first two acts which seem like they could be combined into a single scene without anyone noticing even if they are 75 minutes long. The same is true of act four, which comes off more like a brief epilogue than a standalone act and the scene change is needless. The ending is senselessly uncomfortable. Sure “honour” plays a stupid if important role in many operas set in Spain (look at Ernani), but here it is just totally braindead. Chimene is the only character who has any concept of justice, and everyone else destroys her for it. Eventually even she succumbs because the killer is her pre-existing lover, and this is just so unsettling to me. Sure her forgiving Rodrigue gives the opera a “happy ending”, but he still killed her father! She is going to marry and have children by the man who murdered her father in an honour killing, does no one else get how disturbing this is? Also, ten tableaux are five or six too many! Even the 2011 production with Alagna (which I must  admit seems to have re-formed the opera into something completely different from what it originally was) did everything technically in five scenes and I wonder if it couldn’t be four. Also, what is up with the Infanta subplot? It really doesn’t go anywhere and is rather useless. A beta.

4 responses to “Jules Massenet: Le Cid (1885)”

  1. A beta is fair. (Although with those comments, you’re not giving it a gamma?)

    The score has lots of great things, but it *is* very much heroic grand opera at its most cardboard. Blame Corneille for the ending, though! He also wrote your favourite opera, Polyeucte.

    It really gets me that many people’s knowledge of Massenet is limited to this, Manon, Werther, Thais (because it’s been done by the Met, with Hampson & Fleming), Hérodiade, and Roi de Lahore (with Sutherland & a bad lineup of international stars). Thais is very good – but Massenet’s most works are those of the late 19th / early 20th century.

    And they listen to Le Cid in Queler’s recording, with Domingo and some damyankees mangling French!

    I really like the overture; it’s one of Massenet’s three best. (Others are Roma & Roi de Lahore.)

    Rodrigues’ sword aria isn’t bad? Have you heard Georges Thill singing it? (Thill singing ANYTHING is wonderful.) In the same way, Endrèze singing Thomas’ Hamlet knocks Keenlyside into a cocked hat.

    And, yes, Rodrigues’ prayer is a *** number! (Echoes of Le prophète Act III?)


  2. No decent, complete recording exists, though! The best — an unofficial release with Roberto Alagna and a Francophone cast — is cut by half an hour. The Saint-Etienne CD is the most complete, but the sound quality is poor, and Chris Merritt is not ideal in the title role.


  3. I was listening to D’Indy’s Fervaal today; the opera’s post-Wagnerian, but beautifully sung. French really is the most attractive operatic language.


  4. I know Fervaal, I’ve heard it. I don’t think I will ever review it because of D’Indy’s psychotic anti-semitism but I do remember liking Kaito’s prophecy aria and not liking Guilhen. That comment is ironic, however, because the worst opera I have ever heard is probably Franchetti’s La figlia d’Iorio, I remember only one moment I liked and otherwise I wanted to die for two and a quarter hours.

    I would say, however, that Italian is the most beautiful operatic language because you actually pronounce Italian as is when singing it, unlike French. 🙂 Two can play at that game… and Czech is the best Slavic language for opera!

    Good lord, Corneille wrote Polyeucte? Why was he not guillotined! (I know it didn’t exist yet.)

    Oh, the “Sword Aria” and the Invocation to St. James are the two-star item, sorry, I meant that as a single entry! I wasn’t dissing it.

    No, it was not destined to gamma land, although I will admit that for the first half-hour I was like “why am I watching this?”. I sort of realized that, a) all productions of Le Cid are crappier than the opera itself is and b) Corneille’s play (a classic of French drama as you know) is more to blame than Massenet for how terrible this thing is. Also I genuinely liked Act 3 in its entirety, and the ballet is world class! I also feel so sorry for Chimene as she gets cutdown while legitimately seeking justice for her father’s senseless murder, hence it was redeemed to beta land.

    I wished that this Alagna production had not been so weird. Setting an historical subject around a thousand years later was strange and a lot of the context of the libretto got lost because it was time specific. The Spanish characters also came off more as French and the opera seemed like it had been transformed into a different opera: like watching Verdi’s Aroldo while knowing the score of Stiffelio backwards and forwards.


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