Jules Massenet: Therese (1907) Part II of 5th Anniversary Double Bill

Opera en deux actes. Running Time: 1 hour 19 minutes.

This is a bit different, a 20th century Massenet work set during the French Revolution with what I would call perfect vocal casting (or in fact, perfect casting in general): lots of men and a solitary mezzo-soprano!

SETTING: Clagny and Paris, October 1792 and June 1793. Therese (mezzo-soprano) is torn between her love for le Marquis de Clerval, Armand (tenor) and her husband, the Girondist Andre Thorel (bass), to whom she owes essentially everything she has in life. The Girondists were a pro-republican faction which attempted to resist the extremes of the French Revolution, essentially the centre-left or moderate revolutionaries. Much of the opera is spent attempting to find a way to get Armand out of France because of his class status. In the end, Therese is confronted with the choice of either dying with her husband or fleeing for safety with Armand. The only other named character is Morel (baritone), who is a friend to les Thorel and serves mostly as a plot forwarding informant in the second act.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A park at Clagny, October 1792. (43 minutes)

0: The prelude ** starts off with a striking and relentlessly furious revolutionary whirlwind theme. It eventually gives way to a lento minuet-ish section which never the less shows underlining angst. A very effective opening.

2: Selle, paquete, bride After an extremely brief soldier chorus * (off stage) we have what sounds rather like a mid-19th century recitative for two officers (tenor and baritone). They are replaced by Therese and her husband Andre (also in recitative) talking about soldiers going off to die on the front (and get interrupted at times by the two officers and the off-stage chorus of soldiers). Throughout this entire section the listener is entrenched in the sounds of revolutionary France.

7: Leur devoir! Therese is finally left alone with Andre and the couple embarks on something rather lovely *** a glorious eleven-minute duet dominated by several ariosi, in particular demonstrating the richness of the mezzo-soprano voice (she never goes higher than a single sustained high A-flat, which appears to exist only to prove that she can hit it!). Andre reveals that he is about to purchase the chateau in which he used to live as a servant: the estate of le Marquis de Clerval, so that its rightful owner, Armand, might one day reclaim it (mostly to a reminiscing solo violin and flute).

17: Je t aime Alone, Therese reveals her love for Armand ** (notice that there is a quotation from Faust here, Gounod that is).

23: La chute des feuilles A two-minute long intermezzo as Armand enters alone and hidden by a cloak ***.

25, 37: Le parc! A romantic solo violin introduces Armand and we are off into a long arioso *** which becomes a duet with Therese ***. The most remarkable section is a beguilingly Gluck-like accompaniment for Armand *** as it minuets its way (notice the chime effect) and he recounts how they danced at a ball at Versailles. He protests her demands that her life be devoted to honour.

40: Eh bien, je partirai Armand attempts to leave just after begging Therese (unsuccessfully) to run away with him, but is almost caught by revolutionaries **. Andre vouches for him and the act ends. A minor explosion this.

ACT 2 A bourgeois interior, afternoon, Paris, June 1793. (35 minutes)

0: The act opens with a long prelude ** replaying that Gluck theme from earlier. It shifts to some brief bombast before becoming rather forlorn in a Parsifal-like sense, but the idea that we are in revolutionary France never fully leaves.

6: Jour de Juin! Therese wants to escape the Terror for the quiet of the countryside (cor anglaise is a nice effect) **. Andre expresses that he holds to only two virtues: friendship and freedom, the last Therese declares requires too much of human beings.

13: Moi? Andre has acquired a pass, which will be used by Armand, meanwhile he also plans to escape to the countryside with Therese. A strangely placid duet ensues *, a unique moment in an otherwise either frantic or sexy work.

18: Je vous aimais Morel arrives with bad news about the Girondists, Andre has to go. But first he releases Armand from inside the grandfather clock (the libretto specifies that his clothes are different from that of act one). A good ensemble ensues **. He has to get out fast, by tomorrow Andre will be unable to protect him, so Armand must leave France. As he goes, he has to catch up with Morel, Andre kisses Therese on the forehead.

21: Avec toi! Left alone, Armand begs Therese to fly with him ***. Massenet pushes up the level of turbulence here to force nine. At first she tries to get him to leave because she does not want him to be killed, but he keeps trying to get her to leave with him so they can, presumably, enjoy that love together. Although at first furious, the music quickly takes on a sweetness situated in mid late-19th century. Morel breaks things up, again, and Armand hides again in the grandfather clock. Now the merde has hit the fan, Andre has been arrested and is being taken to the Conciergerie! Morel leaves, Armand comes out again, Therese begs him to get out quick, even the Seine is red with blood (a reference to the coming sunset)! Armand escapes just in time, but there is still need for a distraction, and Therese can provide it….

32: Il est sauve! The playout ***: the theme from the act one prelude (you will recognize it) finally comes back as Andre is taken past the house and Therese sees him. He calls out her name, she screams Vive le roi! and is taken by the mob to be executed. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This opera is a treasure. First, it perfectly fits on a single compact disc at just under 79 minutes in length, almost as if Massenet knew just how much data could be stored on such a device. Second, the heroine is a mezzo-soprano (one of several by Massenet for the contralto Lucy Arbell), which is awesome because there need to be more of them (although why are most of them French?) and it is refreshing to hear the dark tones of the mezzo voice, far warmer than the typical soprano heroine! (Producers should also keep note that mezzos are less expensive than sopranos, just saying because this one needs more performances!). Third, it is on an historical theme, and the score is magnificently both period to the revolution and modern for 1907 (there are moments when one thinks they are possibly listening to Debussy, sometimes even Wagner or Tchaikovsky, along side near quotations of Gluck, Mozart, Gretry etc.). An amusing feature is the usage of whole chord string recitatives, just like a mid-19th century opera! It is true that a lot of time is spent on the ultimately irrelevant dealings of trying to get Armand (the only one of the main characters left alive in the end) out of France, but this bit of classism is justified by the conflicting love triangle and emotional struggle of the title character. Another delightful element is that the male characters are extremely well developed. Although the narrative subject is Therese, the objects are all male, the reverse of usual operatic literature. The sex object of the plot is Armand, (and let us just admit that he is almost the ultimate operatic homme fatal and male-damsel in destress), not Therese. There is no gynophile gaze here, it is androphile (in spite of some slight words from Armand which only confirm his fatal man status). Even the honour concept which dominates the opera is the struggle of a woman in gratitude to a man she is married to over her long-term attraction for another man, and not some arbitrary masculine duty concept. Yes Andre is guided by a life-long friendship, but it is also toward the same homme fatal that his wife objectifies. Musically, the opera is essentially flawless. Both orchestral sections (there are several and vocal lines are obviously the product of a master opera composer by this point (this is one of the last Massenet operas after all). Although an early 20th century work, the melodic system is saturated in an early era. There isn’t a trace of Strauss, Puccini, or Berg here. If I wrote an opera, this would be the musical language I would use.

An alpha plus.

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