In his first appearance on the stage of Paris’ Palais Garnier, Roberto Alagna, as the newly knighted Rodrigue, was confronted with a profound dilemma: to obey or ignore his father’s orders to strike revenge against the man who insulted and disarmed his father (Don Diègue) in a jealous rage. The offending man in question is actually the father of Rodrigue’s bride to be. Yikes!  

As explored initially in Pierre Corneille’s play of the same name, this dilemma plunges our hero into the depths of his soul as he considers his life just as he is called into battle to secure medieval Spain’s victory over the invading Moors.

This ain’t Don Carlo, but it is a compelling Belle Époque opera by Massenet that has been absent from the Opéra de Paris for nearly a century, much to the consternation of revered maestro Michel Plasson. After watching the octogenarian Plasson elevate an otherwise lukewarm concert staging of Massenet’s Cléopâtre () into an opulent feast earlier this year, I had high expectations for this production by Charles Roubaud, which premiered—with Alagna—in Marseille in 2011.

For reasons that are unclear to me, Massenet’s opera diverges considerably from the original play. In the latter, Chimène, Rodrigue’s lover, asks the King for her groom’s head after he slays her father, whereas in the opera she demands justice sans pity or pardon. Rodrigue goes to battle and is feared dead but returns victorious, earning himself the title, “Le Cid,” a reference to an Arabic honorific for descendants of the prophet Muhammad. In the play, Chimène is not swayed by the militaristic pomp and demands that Rodrigue duel for her honour, and eventually their engagement is reconfirmed. In the opera, Chimène pardons her betrothed just as he is about to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Despite these differences, this opera is cited for its at times verbatim usage of Corneille’s famous lines, and the result is a libretto that is surprisingly reflective and resonant. Thus we have moments such as the following, in which Rodrigue tells Count Gormas, “Je suis jeune, il est vrai, mais aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend pas le nombre (sans rigueur) des années!” And as Alagna notes in the programme, “D’abord héroïque, Rodrigue acquiert une fragilité au moment de prendre la décision de sauver son père ou celle qu’il aime.” Fragility, indeed, as the tenor of the moment stands at the frontier between honour and love, between youth and manhood.

Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are less engaging, at least in the operatic version. Chimène is somewhat annoying since she never takes a moment to consider what the audience knows, that it was her father who provoked all the subsequent pain and torment. Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi lacked a certain vocal presence—and Garnier is not a very big house—though her singing was elegant, particularly in a duet with the Infanta (the daughter of the King), who also loves Rodrigue but encourages Chimène to marry him since she cannot wed a mere knight. The Infanta is a fairly brief role, which is a pity since beloved French soprano Annick Massis was radiant in her fine pink dress (impressively detailed costumes by Katia Duflot) and sang with glorious control in her aria as she distributes alms.

As Don Diègue, Rodrigue’s emotionally wounded father, Paul Gay’s singing was infused with burnished, melting legato, particularly when he accepts blame for the killing of Count Gormas (a strident Laurent Alvaro).

Alagna’s big moment comes near the end of the opera, when Rodrigue addresses himself to Saint-Jacques and pleads for divine guidance just as he prepares to enter into battle. He began the aria, “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père,” with a delicacy I had not previously associated with this singer, who is known for stretching himself in heavy Verdi repertoire. But here he shines with purity of tone and superb diction, and he certainly does not risk being upstaged by a tempestuous Manon or Carmen…

Maestro Plasson deserves much of the credit for a performance memorable for its coherence and elegant simplicity. His orchestra was splendid throughout, treating Massenet with the care and precision one might reserve for Schubert, as in the harp, clarinet and flute ensemble that begins the fourth act and eventually swells to a euphoric flag-waving finale. Moreover, it would be hard to ask for a more idiomatic chorus, which deftly handled everything from boisterous drinking songs to some lovely, hushed requiem excerpts following the death of Count Gormas.

The sets by Emmanuelle Favre were impressive but wisely did not aim to compete with the gaudy interior of the Palais Garnier. Particularly effective was a “strategy room” with ornate maps for walls.

Back in Geneva, I happened upon—in the same week—yet another opera based on a play by  Pierre Corneille. It’s a better known play, Médée, but a true operatic rarity, Cherubini’s Medea. Yes, the Italian version made famous by Maria Callas! In the local opera scene, this production—at the Grand Théâtre de Genève—was meant to be the event of the season largely as a reunion for German director Christof Loy and American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, who triumphed together here in Macbeth in 2012.

Alas it was not beshert. During rehearsals Larmore became ill with tracheitis and had to withdraw from the production under doctor’s orders. The Geneva team characterized this turn of events as a “catastrophe” given the paucity of singers available to sing this role. But the intendant’s natural breathing was restored after discovering that French-Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties was not only available, but had sung this punishing role to excellent notices at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2011. She saved the day, and this was good news for everyone—except perhaps the two skateboard-riding teens Medea eventually kills to avenge the betrayal of her former lover, and the children’s father, Giasone.

Did I mention this opera is rarely staged? It appears Cherubini himself was a willing accomplice in attempts to shield it from the limelight—in his original manuscript he blacked out Medea’s final aria, and it took a team of researchers and sophisticated x-ray equipment to finally uncover the mystery. And yet Cherubini has no shortage of admirers, Beethoven chief among them. His output comprises something of a transition between the intricacy of Gluck and Mozart and the full-bloodedness of Beethoven. Yet I must admit I found Medea to be somewhat of a slog, with hours of heavy, anguished singing and hardly a moment of relief.

By contrast, Fidelio is intense, but Beethoven sprinkles in plenty of beauty and the piece, at least for me, never drags. Even Norma, a chipper tale in which children are nearly murdered, is meticulously composed in such a way as to hold the audience’s attention. One cares about the protagonists! And yet here all I wanted was for Medea to hurry up and finish the job.

This is not to suggest that Loy’s production is uninteresting. He succeeds in the face of a formidable challenge—an opera in which very little actually happens. The stunning all-wood set by Herbert Murauer includes a passerelle and a raised orchestra pit. Moreover, the chorus—clad in slinky black evening wear—is superbly choreographed so as to observe—sometimes actively, at other times passively—the sordid events as they unfold.

Loy’s vision of the title character emphasizes her sense of bewilderment and betrayal as a lover and mother. She is driven to the most egregious of crimes after ruling out all other conceivable ways of ending her nightmare. Deshorties is mostly on the same page as Loy, though her propensity to shriek drowned out my interest in considering her perspective. Deshorties gives a focused, powerful performance that almost feels superhuman. Sort of like Callas?

As Glauce, innocently preparing for her wedding day and unaware of the looming traumas, Grazia Doronzio’s voice bloomed but there were signs of opening night jitters. Tenor Andrea Carè, a student of Pavarotti, sang Giasone with Italianate ardour, a remarkable contrast to Deshorties’ harshness. Canada’s Daniel Okulitch (yes, of the Brokeback Mountain opera), was King Creonte—perhaps the first monarch I have seen in a t-shirt. After taking some time to warm up, he unfurled his authoritative bass. Italian contralto Sara Mingardo deserved, and received, a large ovation for her warm, penetratingly sung performance. As the nurse Neris, she is the only one willing to lend an empathetic ear to Medea.

One major advantage of the raised orchestra pit was that Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja met his attentive singers at waist level. The result was tight coordination among soloists, chorus, and the sterling Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

Just before Medea inserts poison into the breakfast she serves her sons—who reappear in tuxes, sans skateboards this time—she finally considers the words of Neris and agrees it is time to save her children… from their mother. Yet some satanic force comes over her and everything goes up in flames. In a way I was relieved to be finished with Cherubini’s opera, yet grateful to see this meticulous, striking production by Christof Loy.