What a pleasure this disc is. Much of this repertoire is rarely heard, all of it is exquisitely beautiful. It is true that Massenet’s emotional palette is somewhat limited—but less so than one would believe from reading his critics. If a strong case is to be made for his music, this production from the Australian company Melba is the way to do it. Superb performances by a singer and conductor who understand the idiom, along with thoughtful and extensive notes by Rodney Milnes and Graham Johnson, and complete texts and translations, given with a dramatic context being set as well.
Milnes, in his essay, nails the "Massenet problem." For those people for whom art music is supposed to avoid sentiment, only hint at eroticism, and above all be of serious high purpose, Massenet is a challenge. Milnes quotes the 1954 Grove’s Dictionary as saying that Massenet’s operas are appropriate only for a public "which regards music as an agreeable after-dinner entertainment." Milnes adds, wonderfully, that this "in turn probably says more about the British than it does about Massenet."
Most Fanfare readers already know if they respond to Massenet’s music. If you do, this disc is essential. There are a few reasonably well-known arias here, but many that you won’t know unless you’re a Massenet scholar or specialist collector. Rosamund Illing has a lovely lyric soprano voice, capable of opening up with raw power at climaxes and also of floating some lovely soft high tones... (She is Australian, but one could be forgiven for thinking her French from the timbre.) She gets inside this music and sings it with power and conviction. She floats a lovely B on the final note of "Plus de tourments" from Le Cid, and her dramatic outburst concluding one of the Sapho arias ("Ah! Vous avez parlé") is positively chilling. The Sapho arias are a major find here. We get four great scenes for soprano, covering perhaps the widest emotional range of everything here, and Illing sings them magnificently.
Richard Bonynge has always had a connection with Massenet’s music, and he conducts effectively and lovingly throughout...
I listened only in two-channel stereo, and the sound was very rich and naturally balanced... Very enthusiastically recommended.