Jules Massenet: Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902) 5th Anniversary! Massenet Double Bill Part 1

Miracle en musique en trois actes. Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

It has been five years today since I started this blog! Can you all believe it! I have reviewed over 350 operas! Okay, I have released 344 reviews to be exact (counting this one), but I have nine completed reviews waiting to be released.

This was an opera that came into existence almost on accident. Based on a 1892 story by Anatole France, the author of of all things Thais, the libretto ended up being send to Massenet directly and never went through the usual vetting process the composer usually set up for new projects (involving his concierge). Having read the entire libretto over the course of a single train trip from Paris to his country estate at Egreville (around two to two and a half hours distance to the southeast). The resulting opera is brief (each act is around 30 minutes long), lacks any soloist parts for women or love interest (which, for fans of this blog might come as a relief seeing how overused the trope has become) and has been considered a saccharine sweet bit of religious sentimentality since its first performances at Monte Carlo. But should it be so quickly written off? The story is a rather interesting study into the relationship between blasphemy and G-d given talent. What might be blasphemy for one person is something to offer back to the Almighty for another.

This review is actually of the 1978 EMI release with Alain Vanzo as Jean, but since it is not directly available on YouTube, I have included a 2007 concert performance with Roberto Alagna and a 2012 performance from Florida State University.

SETTING: Cluny Abbey, 14th century. The title character is the juggler Jean (tenor) who, after singing a drinking song to a religious text, is told by the Prior (bass) of Cluny to become a monk. Jean is befriended by the obese monastery cook Boniface (baritone) who, along with a series of snobbish artistic monks (one tenor, two baritones, one bass) demonstrate that the best offering to G-d is ultimately to give of what you do best. A statue of the Virgin Mary (La Vierge), newly unveiled, brings the opera, and its title, to a logical conclusion.


ACT 1: In front of Cluny Abbey. (32 minutes)

0: The prelude ** instantly saturates the score in a medieval hue and would be perfect for the soundtrack of a film set in either a monastery or any medieval subject for that matter.

7: Voulez-vous des tours de jonglerie? Jean stirs up the crowd with his juggling but he goes one step further by making a dedication to the Virgin Mary a rather strange piece ***

11: Pater Noster! The Alleluia du vin *** in which Jean parodies the Our Father and the Hail Mary which surprisingly amuses the crowd immensely even though it is set to a drinking song.

15: Le Prier! The Prior arrives and rebukes Jean for his blasphemy (this almost sounds like traces of Tosca). Jean begs for mercy, first from the Prior, then from the Virgin herself ***. After he starts to weep, the Prior says he will be forgiven. His accompaniment is gentle, but the vocal line is still rather ferocious.

20: Liberte! Liberte! Jean gives his song of Freedom ***. The Prior tells Jean to join the monastery, but he feels like that might be a bit too much, too austere, for him. But the Prior points out the monastery cook, Boniface.

26: Pour la Vierge Boniface goes over the many culinary delights he prepares for the monastery ** and this makes Jean a little less alarmed as they all go in for dinner.

ACT 2: The Cloister. (31 minutes)

0: The prelude ** is yet again a good piece of orchestral scene setting.

3, 8: Ave rosa speciosa/Je connais ma triste indignite The rehearsal of the monks ** is interrupted by the arrival of Jean from dinner and his remarks on how they are able to honour the Virgin Mary by singing Latin hymns to her, but he has nothing to offer her ** (or so he thinks). Four monks attempt to take him under the respective wings (an artist, a poet, a musician, and a sculptor) but none truly are his calling (although if you notice closely, the monks go into Frere Jacques).

15: Non pas, a la place The poet monk makes the strongest (musical) case, although this is probably just because he is a tenor *.

16: Pour moi, je me figure Jean provides a musically lovely mild let down of all four monks **. After a bit from Boniface the monks return to their chanting.

21: Marie, avec L Enfant Jesus The centrepiece of the act is an eight minute long aria in which Boniface recounts a story about how sage protected the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus from the soldiers of Herod during the Flight into Egypt ***. Massenet really gets the sense of terror right here. It lightens up, Jean makes a rather lovely if subtle interjection, and the piece (probably the only aria in the work) works as a singular unit. A shepherds horn (oboe) can be heard as Jean (alone) embarks on some parlando before praying to the Virgin over how a poor juggler such as he can honour her, calling her Mother of Love.

ACT 3: The Chapel, statue of the Virgin Mary centre stage above altar. (27 minutes)

0: The Pastorale Mystique Another prelude (this being the longest at nearly five minutes) ***. It is followed by chanting from the monks in the background as the painter and sculptor monks admire the newly unveiled Madonna statue. Jean, hidden behind a pillar in his monastic habit, starts to take off his robe revealing his street clothes and sings songs before the Virgin. This includes reminders of act one with its player music as Jean quiets down the audience as he is about to perform.

10: Il fait beau voir The first is a furious war song **, which gets angry and allows the tenor to use his lower range, but even he soon realizes that it really is not fitting for the Virgin.

13: Le jeu de Robin et Marion His love song is not quite as good so he switches to a jolly ballade about Robin Hood and Maid Marion **. This gains the attention of some of the monks, who run off to warn the Prior of what Jean is up to!

16: Danse de jongleur Jean commits the ultimate sacrilege and dances before the statue of the Virgin! This can be choreographed rather well as the music is rather brilliant, similar to a Scottish dance actually **.

17: Le miracle As the monks fill the room and the Prior arrives to pronounce sentence on Jean, the statue of the Virgin comes to life and indicates her semi-divine favour upon the Juggler by blessing him ***. The monks fall to their knees in awe as we finally hear soprano angels announcing good tidings. Massenet could have gone over-religious here, but he doesn’t! There is a subtlety to the music, even a restraint, when we could have over-powering organs in the background.

22: Rayonnement! Suddenly, Jean starts to die ** as two angels (sopranos) sing away as the statue of the Virgin ascends to heaven.

24: Spectacle radieux Jean gets a poignant death scene ***, and although it has a solo violin, the rest of it is relatively restrained as in the final minute the orchestra dies down completely, the Prior recites one of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for they shall see God, and the Angels and then the Monks give a sotto voce Amen as the curtain falls to a simple pianissimo chord from the strings.


The claims of sticky sentimentality regarding this opera are far more insulting against the brilliant theatrical mind of Jules Massenet than any juggling act in church could be against the Virgin Mary. Being Jewish, I thing she would take a rather wry approach to the irony of uptight goyim in both instances where it applies here.

Le jongleur de Notre-Dame is a prime example of a work by a theatrical master musician at the top of his form and apart from the French secularist tendency to shy away from religiously mystical subject matter, there really is no justification for this score to be neglected. I only had to listen to bars of this score before I realized what Massenet is doing here, and he was hardly engaging in sentimentality. He is depicting an inner struggle and how the quest of devotion of a man for the Virgin Mary can take on an erotic dimension. The word erotic must be defined here, as it actually has two distinct definitions, both sexual love and the struggle of philosophical and mystical contemplation. Although it is certainly possible to interpret the love of Jean for the Virgin as the former (she is, after all, the literally unattainable Mother of God and thus Mother of Christendom and the love of a son for his mother can sometimes border into the sexual realm), what Massenet is trying to depict here is more the latter.

I also agree with Massenet that casting the role of Jean as a soprano does not work. He wrote it for tenor and it should be sung by a tenor. Utilizing a soprano is not only musically unfaithful, it robs the work of its sensuality: Jean is actually in love (in a sense) with the Virgin Mary. To have the part sung by a woman divests it of its obvious theological eroticism which is heightened by the lack of female soloists. The tenor voice has a distinct eroticism, heroism, and vulnerability uniquely its own, and all three are demonstrated here with total mastery theatrically and musically by Massenet. How do I know? because he uses it very sparingly. Massenet, especially later in life, uses this feature rarely. The reduction in the number of tenor roles in his operas (there are only three here, and some of his operas, like Roma have only one), can only be attributed to a composer who knew exactly how to vocally cast a score. This is one of those ultimate tenor star vehicles, it really should be not be modified from its original version.

Now, the plot is obviously thin. This is made obvious by the fact that over one-tenth of the score consists of what are obviously musical padding preludes to each act and we are only talking about a ninety-minute score spread over three acts here. However, each act is so carefully crafted, its leitmotif system so throughly saturated, that it is easy to overlook these things in performance. The ending is actually rather subtle give the circumstances, Massenet could have just as easily ending the thing on Gounodesque organ and full orchestra fortissimo battery chords, but instead opted for a quiet finish.

An alpha plus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: