Revolutionary étude

As someone who enjoys Massenet immensely, I was delighted to receive for review his rarely-performed 1907 opera, Thérèse. It is a compact work consisting of two short acts and clocks in just under seventy minutes. The drama, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is somewhat contrived and rushed. It feels like a work that is missing an act or two that would fill out the roles and give the drama more depth.

The plot is a love triangle (strains of Werther) consisting of the titular character, her husband André, and her former love Armand, who is a member of the French aristocracy and childhood friend of André. Needless to say, there is a guillotine involved and things do not end happily, with Thérèse forced to choose between her passion and her duty—fleeing with Armand or dying with her husband. Massenet is of course the master of writing for emotional, conflicted heroines and Thérèse is no exception. 

This low-mezzo part is ideal for a singer of a certain age, requiring a great deal of guts and passion but only occasional high outbursts. Her melodramatic final scene is a novel highlight, being almost completely declaimed in extremis. There are other memorable aspects to this work though, most noticeably the way in which Massenet’s evocative writing follows the shifting moods and emotional states of the characters with such specificity.

This recording, with Alain Altinoglu leading the Choeur et Orchestre Opera national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillo,n does much to recommend this interesting work, at least as a musical experience. As a product of his maturity, Thérèse is more subdued and restrained than his earlier works, less overtly dramatic than intensely somber. Altinoglu elicits first-rate playing from the orchestra, highlighting the shifting colors and striking harmonies in the music. The interlude in the first act is especially haunting.

As Thérèse, Nora Gubisch brings loads of temperament and angst to the role, and her mature, slightly unfocused mezzo is only occasionally strained. As the two men who love her, Charles Castronovo as Armand and Etienne Dupuis as André offer both elegant voices and elegant singing, but in truth neither part is very compelling and only serve to reflect the drama of the title character. As excellent as this recording is, I think only those with a special interest in Massenet would want to acquire it.

There are some striking moments and innovative writing in this curious work, but it is austere, indulgence-free Massenet without the dramatic intensity to make it memorable. But for those who are interested, the recording is packaged beautifully in a limited edition hardcover book-binding that includes numerous essays in French and English, historical photographs, as well as the libretto.