Massenet DVD

01/07/2007
Raymond J Walker
MusicWeb International (UK)

This documentary chronologically charts the life of Massenet. It is supported by a series of interviews with experts who have studied Massenet, his scores and have been involved in productions of his operas.

It links nicely with the Melba CD Amoureuse, songs sung by Rosamund Illing and accompanied by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Richard Bonynge.

The film reveals much of interest. For most of Massenet’s life his music was celebrated. But a cruel twist of fate brought a change in vogue to which Massenet could not fully relate.

The film is generous on locations, and we are taken to places where Massenet lived, first as a child and later as an adult. The theatres where his operas achieved unparalleled success are also brought into focus. Good camerawork demonstrates the care and attention that has been taken to provide vivid imagery. Additional rostrum camerawork gives us cutaways of posters, letters and music. This generously funded DVD also includes footage from historic performances of Le Roi de Lahore, Esclarmonde and Cendrillon. Throughout, excellent continuity is provided by a well-written script delivered by Bonynge in voice-over. We also see a more informal side to the Maestro where he appears with Dame Joan, and later as we eavesdrop on his accompanying Rosamund Illing on the piano. Illing also provides the soprano arias used throughout as a backdrop.

Jules Massenet (1842–1912) started composing when the European opera scene was fairly fixed on the style of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. Only those who composed in the accepted Italian style were likely to be taken seriously. Hérodiade was a zenith in Massenet’s works. First performed in Brussels in December 1881, it followed Le Roi de Lahore (1877) and preceded Manon (1884). Originally very impressed by Massenet, Paris Opèra turned him down when offered Hérodiade. Despite this first indication of a change in fashion, the opera commanded outstanding success in Brussels. Even a train of confirmed Massenet supporters from Paris went for the occasion and all declared it a triumph beyond expectations. Following this, the Viennese, after hearing his Manon performed by the Court Opera, were likewise impressed and asked for a sequel. 

The Germans with their increasing love for Wagner had been forcing a change in the European style of opera writing. In the main, this was not taken seriously by Massenet and was the reason he was finding his works overshadowed in France. At the end of the 19th Century the new style had gained ground and left Massenet even further behind. He did not seem to see any need for change. His style was becoming masked by Debussy and Ravel, even if he would always be remembered for his sensuous writing where words and music were wedded perfectly together.

In the film, John Cox and Andrew Porter explain the situation with considerable clarity and successfully convey the nuances in Massenet’s compositions. When Massenet found he was unable to get any new operas performed in Europe he discovered that Monaco would come to his rescue. The Prince of Monaco even commissioned him to write for the Casino Theatre there. Staying at the Palace, he wrote operas for a number of seasons.

A short chapter of the film is devoted to the end of Massenet’s life and movingly explains how he bravely left his wife to go to Paris for treatment, knowing that he was never to return. His legacy was to leave compositions that contain a wealth of orchestral colour and melody and with vocal lines that are carefully woven into the hearer’s emotions. We find that arias drift, dreamlike, to match the ambience of thought. Rosamund Illing has a fine reputation as a singer internationally and she does not disappoint. Richard Bonynge conducts with panache and does full justice to these rich scores.

The DVD production (in English) is excellent in every respect and has been compiled with no expense spared. It will surely be picked up for TV transmission, but in the meantime is one opera buffs can watch with pleasure.