Jules Massenet: Roma (1912)

Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

How about an opera in which the two primary female characters have to kill one another in order to save Rome because one of them is a seemingly air-headed vestal virgin? Well, you almost get that here!

Also, do not be deceived, this is one of my longer reviews!

SETTING: Rome, 216 B.C.E. Following the Battle of Cannae, when Rome lost to the Carthaginians, it is revealed that the Vestal Virgin Fausta (dramatic soprano), niece of the senator Fabius Maximus (baritone) had failed to keep the Sacred Fire of Vesta burning during an illicit rendezvous with the tribune (and sole Roman survivor at Cannae) Lentulus (tenor), and that this is the reason for defeat. Fausta is sentenced to be buried alive to appease the goddess, but her grandmother Posthumia (contralto) spares her this fate by stabbing her to death. Rome then triumphs over Carthage. There is a subplot in which a Gaul named Vestapor (baritone) tries to stop the death of Fausta in order to bring about the fall of Rome. He manages to help Lentulus briefly escape with Fausta, but she returns to suffer death after all.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Before the Roman Curia (the ancient one, not the Catholic one that exists today). (29 minutes)

0: The overture ** starts off with some mildly militant themes, bouncing off into a whirlwind, and eventually accidentally quotes a chord modulation from Iris if you listen closely enough. It bounces off a series of later themes (some of them vaguely romantic, which represent Vesta as well as the lovers, although one rather nagging series of chords DAAA-Dah! DAAA-Dah! dominates much of the procedings) but as a result can easily come off as clanky or even mildly derivative (and reminiscent of the stock-pot overtures written by Bellini). A section in the middle resembles both Weber (Euryanthe) and Mascagni (Iris). It does serve its purpose adequately, and is rather a rare occurrence in Massenet (who introduced Don Quixote with twenty bars).

9: O tristes jours! The opening chorus is not too far from what one would expect from Gluck *. The menace is mild, the strings meander, and the general feeling is that of disorientation and of trying to get through to the next scene. Caius, a tribune, tells the chorus that Hannibal has been victorious and all of the Roman legions that fought him have been whipped out. A rumour spreads that the defeat is the result of one of the Vestal Virgins allowing the Sacred Flame of Vesta to go out. The blind Posthumia is brought on by Galla, her Gaulish slave, on their way to the Temple of Vesta to pray (she will not return until the end of act four). This is done through a rather magnificently subtle, if bizarre, parody of stock-pot recitative. After a report from Fabius and his calls that the people not flee the city, Lentulus arrives as the chorus exclaims fear to quotations from the overture. He is apparently the sole survivor among the Roman legions, which have been wiped out by the Carthaginians.

19: Vingt blessures n’ont pu ternir Lentulus then embarks on the closest thing to an aria in the act **. Like the rest of his music, it is a welcomed relief from everything else even though the spectre of doom has impregnated the entire act.

23: Ton âme dans leurs cœurs A hopeful ensemble as Fabius gives a pep talk to the Romans *.

24: L’Oracle a parlé ! The miserable scene of the relating of the oracle from the Supreme Pontifex *: from the prophetic brass sheet he has read that everything is the fault of a vestal virgin who apparently never heard Light One Candle. This Vestal must be buried alive, then Carthage will be driven out. Blood is demanded, and the people cry for blood. Lentulus worries that the Vestal in question might either be his sister Junia, or his secret lover, Fausta.

ACT 2: Atrium of the temple of Vesta. (20 minutes)

4: Vesta, c’est de la patrie! We have the rather standard act/scene two gentle, feminine, preluding (a hymn to Vesta, specifically), before a conversation between Fabius, Lucius, and the Supreme Pontifex the best of which is a patch regarding Vesta ** (to the thème from the prélude) and revitalizing Rome from the Pontifex as they plan to routed out the guilty Vestal who has brought calamity upon them with her wantonness. The Virgins arrive, and are given their orders by the Pontifex. The Grand Vestal asks why he is so miserably, well, miserable. Apparently she did not get the memo yet that Rome is losing the war with Carthage, and that Vesta has been dishonoured by one of the Virgins. The astonished chief Vestal is even further confounded when one of her number, one Junia (the sister of Lentulus) admits that she is the guilty Virgin.

11: Le soleil se couchait The incredibly sad (re: pathetic) accounting by Junia occurs in one of the most mildly sad arias in all opera ** as she goes into a vague sex dream she had once while attending to the sacred flame of Vesta. The Supreme Pontifex knows she is not guilty, and so they move on to Fausta by lying to Junia that her brother Lentulus has been killed, which causes Fausta to faint. Fabius tells the Pontifex that he will leave Fausta to his sentence, niece or no. This occurs to almost no musical support until the curtain falls (and even then). An oddly non-dramatic musical end to such an intensely dramatic scene.

ACT 3: The sacred grove of Vesta. (32 minutes)

0, 8: Nous ne verrons The act begins with a gentle (flute and harp dominated) entr’acte **. We meet Vestapor, who encounters Galla. He gets an earful on the situation with Fausta and decides to save her in order to bring about the fall of Rome. This section is rather ornery, and it goes on for about seven minutes, although it briefly goes into a rather Wagnerian bit *. Galla (whose lines sound like the bellowing of a countertenor) leaves and Lentulus arrives. He and Vestapor plot to rescue Fausta.

14: Soir Amirable Alone, Lentulus thinks about Fausta ** (the theme from the entr’acte returns). This is one of the best numbers in the opera so far.

18: Fausta! The love duet ** uses themes from the overture to build one of the more memorable scenes, although it does fall apart a couple of times. Unlike the previous aria, there is no single, dominate theme. The final minute pulls off a patch of lyricism before the return of Vestapor (which prompts a rather ornery bit from the strings and brass). It ends with a rather Puccini-esque climax as the lovers run off. Vestapor tells the arriving Supreme Pontifex that he has lost Fausta, and Rome. The Pontifex orders that he be tortured as the curtain falls to a surprisingly better finish from the orchestra than the previous one (although notice the chromaticism).

ACT 4: Inside the Curia. (31 minutes)

0: A stronger opening than usual **, very regal and formal. The senators remark on the pensive nature of Fabius, who is waiting either for news that Fausta has escaped or her return for judgment. She does the latter, which is something of a relief because otherwise there wouldn’t be much else to the plot. There is a nice theme in the strings accentuated by a harp, but otherwise the orchestra just accompanies the action.

7: O ma Fausta si chere! The middle part of the act, up to the arrival of Posthumia, consists of four two to three minute long sections which are essentially a duet between Fabius and Fausta. Fabius addresses Fausta rather fatherly at first **, and her response is a bit of a whirlwind.

13: Ne me refuse pas After a bit more stormy a reaction from Fabius, Fausta responds with a more lyrical patch from the orchestra **, ending in a duet crescendo. The trial occurs, it is obvious that Fausta is guilty.

19: Posthumia! The arrival of Posthumia, one would think, would bring things to a higher temperature, but it does not at least not musically *. She tries to stop everything, fails, and Fausta is sentenced to death. The act ends on an orchestral explosion.

ACT 5: Before the Tomb. (21 minutes)

0: O Vesta, O Vesta, par qui Rome The beautiful choral a cappella opening ** which is a prayer to Vesta. It is followed by a series of chromatic whole tones as the Supreme Pontifex escorts Fausta to her fate. Lentulus arrives and begs that he take the place of Fausta in death, declaring that he is the guilty one and Fausta an innocent he seduced.

8: Laisse-moi dans la tombe Fausta passionately pleads with Lentulus to leave her to her fate which climaxes into something one is not expecting, a glorious ensemble ***.

12: J’ai droit d’approcher Posthumia arrives **, knowing that she must save her granddaughter from her fate, but helping her commit suicide? No, she must do the deed herself. The scene requires a bit of acting on the part of the contralto (and is accompanied by the oddest, almost jolly tune at first). It is followed by a small requiem, the remorse of Posthumia over the body of Fausta, further prayers to Vesta, and the arrival of news that Rome has triumphed over the Carthaginians.

COMMENTS:

Roma can easily come off as something of an ugly duckling on first hearing. Its dating (the score was begun as early as 1902) really does not match up with the overall combination of Neo-Classicalism, Meyerbeer, and Modernism, making this perhaps the most un-Massenet of Massenet operas. It has all of the charm of an obscure work by Gluck or the Parthenon. The strength of the work is in its brevity and its formality of form and melodic invention, otherwise it could come off as a relic or even a ghost of musical theatre past. Although praised at its premiere on Monte-Carlo as soon to be one of the great operas of the world, and within a year it had debuted in Monaco, Brussels, and Paris, it fell flat quickly and has never really made a come back, in spite of a few, sporadic productions over the last century or so.

On first hearing, it is probable that one will not understand this opera. I certainly found myself in that position. But if you give it time, say a third or fourth hearing, its subtly and austere beauty will eventually surface, and its early success becomes more obvious.

In some ways, this is the operatic (and Classical Roman) equivalent of Le sacre du Printemps but at the same time also breathing the air of a previous era, like the most popular entry on this blog, Edmea. The first act is a fine example of introductory exposition, everyone of importance to the plot, save the soprano, is introduced in what is obviously Meyerbeerian-style recitative with the tenor getting an attractive early number.

If Tchaikovsky and (especially) Wagner would have drowned the cast in an orchestral sea over this kind of material, Massenet forces his singers to be actors of the highest order if they are to successfully convey the action here. But there are plot holes: first of all, why is Fausta not immediately arrested at the end of act two? Why is Lentulus allowed to be left alone with her without a guard and given the opportunity to escape with her? Is it, perhaps, in order to clear up the only lie in the plot, when the Pontifex claimed that Lentulus was dead in order to entrap Fausta. Doesn’t act three really just overcomplicate an otherwise simplistic narrative of a sex-starved Vestal who gets her comeuppance? Perhaps the reason Vestapur exists is in order to include a French character into an otherwise Roman cast, after all, he only appears in act three, and is probably tortured to death before act four. An injection of Gallic pride on the part of the original playwright Dominique Parodi?

So why the reason for the lack of success? Well, the First World War probably stopped it (its 20th performance in Paris was in January, 1918) but it has two other problems in comparison to, dare I even say it, Turandot? There are no blockbuster melodies in this score and it is far too non-modern to not be discounted as anything but nostalgia. There are several good, even at times great, melodies, surely, but nothing here would ensure pop musical immortality the likes of Nessun Dorma. Ironically, the strongest vocal music actually goes to the sole tenor role, Lentulus, and although this is by far the best in the score, it is not enough (even though he harkens back to mid-19th century conventions amid a sea of Wagnerism, Modernism, and Neo-Classicalism). I found myself trying to beef up this review a bit more than usual because the overall impression is that of an incomplete masterwork. Yet, unlike the works of Meyerbeer, nothing has been cut here. There is also the issue of the vocal casting: all but three of the roles are either for soprano or baritone, and only one of these roles, the lone tenor, is by any definition large. There is also no single main character, no one is on stage long enough! Rather, there is an ensemble of major characters, who get a lot of padding from the supporting players. The largest role, I think is Fabius Maximus. Posthumia is a brilliant cameo part, and pivotal to the plot, but she is on for less than twenty minutes. Fausta, although the plot is driven by her (mis-)behaviour, has relatively little to do prior to act three. No one appears in all five acts, even the chorus! Perhaps that is meant to emphasize that the title is indicating that Rome itself is the main character of Roma?

And now, what is good about this opera? Well, the leitmotif system works. The orchestration is masterful, and if subdued, the score has a unique charm. The plot is barebones, and perhaps this is appropriately reflected in the music. Perhaps this is the Wozzeck of Neo-Classicalism? Or a revival of Myerbeerian Grand Opera in miniature? You decide! A unique alpha.

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