A recital of Massenet arias that contains nothing from Manon, Werther or Thaïs announces itself immediately as something of an attempt to change attitudes and received opinions. Richard Bonynge was at the forefront of the Massenet revival in the 1970s, recording several works that had been not just out of fashion but forgotten (Esclarmonde, Le roi de Lahore and Cigale). Since then the Saint Etienne Festival has staged and recorded several other operas, although elsewhere people tend just to stick to the three most famous works. You would have to travel far and wide before you found a staging of Ariane, Sapho, or Le Cid. (I have seen Grisélidis on stage, in Wexford in 1982, and Covent Garden and Santa Fe both put on effective productions of Chérubin.) Rosamund Illing has an excellent voice, capable of delicate, light touches, for instance in 'Plus de tourments' - the aria for The Infanta in Act 2 of Le Cid. When she switches to the other character, Chimène, in the famous 'Pleurez mes yeux' she uses a different, more dramatic tone. Here, of course, she can be compared to many other singers, Callas, Sutherland (on an old Decca LP) and Bumbry (in the complete recording conducted by Eve Queler with Domingo in the title role). She is more secure than Callas, with perhaps less incisive diction, and although she can't equal the thrill of Sutherland's soaring attack on the climactic phrase, it's a very good performance.
The extracts from Sappho are even better, her vituperative tirade against her so-called friends in 'Ah! vous avez parlé?' making one eager to hear Illing in the whole work. The sacred arias are even rarer than the operatic ones, the extracts from La vierge being particularly fine.
The recording is first rate, with the orchestra full and lush - as it must be in Massenet - but never obscuring the voice. The booklet contains essays by Rodney Milnes and Graham Johnson, both of whom also appear in the really fascinating documentary about Massenet that comes from the same company. Anyone who is enthusiastic about Massenet's music will want this CD for certain, and even those who shy away from his sometimes overblown Romantic style might find themselves in for a surprise.