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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.

8 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:



  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Thérèse is memorable. I last heard this opera back in the 1970′s and I still remember 90% of the words and music. There are haunting melodies in it, and a fine finale.

  • Belfagor says:

    There are two earlier recordings, one on Decca with Bonynge and Tourangeau, who plays it like verismo, very speedy, yet flexible, and it packs quite a punch. A newer one with Baltsa (who is great) is capsized by sluggish pacing and ladeled on expressivity by Gerd Albrecht -- most disappointing. I’m sensing from your review, scifisci, that this also hangs fire slightly.

    One point about Massenet, is that it is generally forgotten that when Manon premiered at the Opera-Comique, much comment was made about the dialogue being accompanied, not just melos, but by a motivic web that carried the drama forward. It was seen as very experimental. He was evidently fascinated by the relationship of speech to music, as the 1st acts of both Bacchus and Amadis are totally declaimed to music (at Bacchus’s premiere, by distinguished members of the Comedie Francaise), and there are key moments of Griselidis and Cleopatre where the main characters lapse into speech.

    Intriguing review, thank you -- I may well order this!

  • Hippolyte says:

    As a point of information only, Nora Gubisch is Mrs. Altinoglu.

  • rapt says:

    I’ll confess that I’m obsessed with this opera--listen to it (Bonynge recording) probably more than any other (and it doesn’t take long either!). Although of course all nationalistic stereotypes (like all generalizations) are wrong, I have to admit that the combination of austerity, as scifisci rightly calls it, and passion seems to me uber-French. For me, there’s a total absence of the occasional straining-for-effect that can sink much verismo (including, again for me, Massenet’s own Navarraise). Closest analogue for me is the equally concise (though not quite as coherent) Il Tabarro, another obsession.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

    Besides Francophone Commonwealth Artists Huguette Tourangeau and Louis Quilico, that Bonynge set can boast Ryland Davies, Alan Held, Ian Caley and Huddersfield’s Own Neilson Taylor ( who had a multifaceted career).

  • shoegirl says:

    I just looked t my Wexford festival tickets and sure enough, it’s this pair (both Therese and Navarraise) that are being aired in October. Might be worth the Trip, if you’re in Europe.