Jules Massenet: Cleopatre (1914)

Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes.

This was the last opera Massenet ever wrote, being first produced around eighteen months after his death in August, 1912, although it was not the last to be performed. It was an esteemed success at its premiere in Monte Carlo, but since then has only sporadically seen the light of day. The score is rather brief, only 202 pages in piano reduction, and the vocal casting is bizarre (two sopranos, one mezzo, one tenor, and a record seven (!) baritones).

SETTING: Egypt and Rome, 40-30 BCE. Cleopatre (mezzo-soprano) is in an on-again/off-again relationship with Marc Antony (baritone). She is also carrying on with a slave named Spakos (tenor), and he keeps dallying with marriage prospects with Octavia (soprano) in spite of the entreaties of Ennius (baritone) that such bad behaviour will only bring down the wrath of Octavian (mute) upon all of them. The rest, as they say, is history.


ACT 1: Tarsus, the camp of Antony. (25 minutes)

0: The opera opens with a strong military theme which dominates the first five minutes of the score **. After a chorus of Tributaries and Romans about how Rome is like the sun shining upon the earth we suddenly bog down into a patch of 19th century Italian opera recitative (but in French) as Marc Antony is told by the slave Spakos (whose accompaniment is sometimes Wagnerian) of the imminent arrival of Cleopatre. Antony insults her, saying that she is really a whore with a crown, or a clown with a gown. The ladies of Cleopatra arrive to an odd bit of precision, Spakos tells Antony to kneel.

9: Daigne accepter le cinname The arrival of Cleopatra ** (accompanied by her lady Charmion). Spakos is rhapsodic about Cleo, although Antony is only beginning to fall under her spell.

13: Je suis venue quittant Cleopatra speaks * in a delicate mezzo passage of hushed, almost sacred, tones. The range is minimal (she never goes beyond B3 to F#5, much of the time droning on an E4). Antony tells her that he is not Caesar, and she tells him that she knows that! At first, it really does not seem as if they are going to get it together.

17: Certes plus belle He eventually gives in * to a striking orchestral passage followed by an orchestral whirlwind during which he tells her that he knows that she knows her sexual allure. She responds almost dispassionately as he falls into her embrace.

21: Marc Antoine! Suddenly Ennius arrives and tries to call Antony back to Rome, the Senate demands his marriage to Octavia. Seeing his ardent relent, Cleopatra makes to leave *, but this only entices Antony back to her and they sail away to Egypt.

ACT 2: (32 minutes)

Scene 1: The house of Antony.

4: Si tu le veux Ennius enquires about Antony from his slaves, including Severus, and discusses his six-month long liaison with Cleopatra. Now Antony is to marry Octavia that very day. The bridal chorus is actually a cappella with grand orchestral interjections. Antony greets Octavia, whose lines have the elegance of Monteverdi **. She goes to prepare for the wedding. Ennius tells Antony that Cleopatra has taken up with Spakos, which infuriates him.

10, 11, 13: Cleopatre!/Solitaire sur ma terrasse/Non! Non! je savais tes tourments A brief but furious turn from the orchestra as Antony fumes about Cleo *. It is followed by a much more subdued passage **. Octavia returns, Antony rejects her, she begs for mercy, he fumes some more, prompting a brief duet **. Octavia is at a loss, one can tell that Massenet has a great deal of sympathy for her from both the accompaniment and the vocal line. Antony deserts her.

Scene 2: The tavern of Amnhes in Alexandria.

17, 22, 27, 29: Son corps est souple/Je croyais tout/Je souffrirai The entr’acte ** consists mostly of an almost tribal timpani theme as the flute and alto/tenor chorus oh-ah before we come upon Cleopatra and Spakos talking to Amnhes (who is the only one who knows their true identities as they are incognito. Spakos and Cleo exchange words of affection. The dance of Adamos ** makes Spakos jealous as Cleo talks about how sexy the dancer is. This prompts Spakos to attempt to strangle the dancer, which causes everyone to turn on the two of them until the Queen reveals her true identity and makes an subtle address *. Charmion bursts in with news that Marc Antony has returned that moment to Egypt and Cleopatra is needed at the palace at once, but first she has to confront the jealousy of Spakos **, which is starting to wane on her.

ACT 3: The gardens of Cleopatra. (21 minutes)

0, 4: J’ai versé le poison dans cette coupe d’or With only 85 pages left to the score and two acts to go, everything else will be brief. The act opens with a five part ballet ** of representatives from various Asian peoples: Lydians, Syrians, Scythians, Amazons, and Chaldeans. It gets interrupted by a sober aria from Cleo * as she pours poison into a golden goblet and offers a kiss to anyone who would drink it. Antony stops the one slave that almost takes up her offer. He upbraids her for her cruel games, all the while she fills him in on how Rome has declared war on Egypt over Antony spurning Octavia as his bride in order to return to Cleo and Egypt.

10, 13, 17, 19: Laissez-moi vous parler/Nous acceptons sans peur/Donnez les fleurs The dance of the Lydians ** is interrupted by the explosive arrival of Octavia herself, who pleads with Marc Antony to go back to Rome with her and marry her. He refuses her, but she then pleads to Cleopatra in the most ardently touching way **. Cleopatra ends up siding with Octavia much to the annoyance of Antony. This prompts a marvellous trio ***, but Antony will not back down. Spakos takes the mournful Octavia aside and tells her that Cleopatra will be his and no longer a rival for Antony soon, but just at that moment Cleopatra inspects the Egyptian forces serving under Antony in his war against Rome **.

ACT 4: Outside the tomb of Cleopatra. (25 minutes)

0, 8, 13, 19: Vaincu/Je croyais a ta morte/Je veux mourir A deathly prelude * opens the act rather deeply (a dark ground bass) but also rather subtly. Cleopatra reclines and reveals that she has spread a rumour that she is dead throughout the city. She asks Spakos if he has succeeded in telling Antony that it is also a rouse so they can escape Octavian together, he claims he has. Eventually, after a lot of rather dreary recitative, he reveals that he has lied to her and told Antony that she is in fact dead after all (allowing for some agitation from the orchestra). She stabs him, Antony is announced. Cleopatra thinks everything is alright, but it is not so *. Cleopatra tries to comfort him in his final moments (as a result of falling on his own sword) **. This is a very gentle and loving section, a lush accompaniment to the dying man, the harp in particular is a poignant touch. He collapses and dies, Cleopatra decides immediately that she will follow him **. She calls for the asp, it bites, so does she. Octavian invades in the mostly quiet final bars as the curtain falls.


So, the role of Octavie is probably more approachable than the others. Musically it certainly seems as if Massenet loves her a great deal more than the others, and she is far more sympathetic. That is, until Marc Antony is dying. Finally, the leads get some of the best music, but overall it is Octavia who gets the best of the night. While consistently good, and sometimes very good, the opera is never great. It is rather brief, essentially a four act (five act?) grand opera in miniature, which does have its appeal. This does not really allow for much character development: Cleo (a mezzo for a nice change) is murderously crazy until love mellows her and she self-murders for Antony (himself single-mindedly in a love-hate relationship with both himself and the Queen), Spakos is psychotically in love with Cleo, Octavia is at least sympathetic, but also sometimes pathetic. The other characters, Ennius and Charmion included, either have no development at all or frankly seem like they should but do not. Massenet does maintain a certain structure (Rome is represented by military music, Egypt by a sort of musical eroticism). Added to this is a strong depiction of death in various stages, perhaps a reference to the declining health of the composer. Perhaps if Massenet had lived to see it it might have been revised in some way, but as it stands, it isn’t a bad evening of theatre, if rather to the point. The performances of the singers themselves are practically flawless all around.

Ultimately, a B+, maybe A- for the most ardent Massenet fan.

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: