23 Apr 2024

Thaïs Online CourseSome Massenet Amuse-bouches

by Dr. Carol Anderson

If you’ve seen Massenet’s Thaïs and want to know more about Massenet’s opera works, or just want to learn more about his music before you see the opera, here is a short, non-scientifically arranged, and deeply personal (to me) list of some of his other operas.

  1. Manon (1884) This is the opera that put Massenet on the operatic “map.” It’s the story of a young woman who chooses between love and lifestyle. She tries to make the former work, with the young man Des Grieux, but is lured away by the offer of luxury as the mistress of a wealthy nobleman. The source novel by Abbé Prevost inspired countless adaptations in addition to Massenet’s, including ballet, film, plays, and other operas. Manon (Anna Netrebko) and Des Grieux (Rolando Villazon) decide to run away together.
  2. Cendrillon (1899) is Massenet’s version of the Perrault fairy tale of Cinderella, and is a perfectly crafted pâtisserie of an opera. The court scenes and the scenes with the stepfamily brim with wit and humor, and the tender scenes with Cendrillon and the Prince are ravishing. The Fairy Godmother is a stratospheric coloratura soprano, without a hint of “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.” Ėglise Gutierrez as La Fée sends Joyce DiDonato’s Cendrillon off to the ball.
  3. Werther (1892), inspired by The Sorrows of the Young Werther by Goethe, is another story of love denied. Werther meets and falls in love with Charlotte at a Christmas Ball, but Charlotte is engaged to another. Charlotte’s sense of duty keeps her on the traditional path, while Werther’s desperate passion leads to his eventual demise. Werther’s lament “Pourquoi me réveiller” as sung by Jonas Kaufmann.
  4. Chérubin (1905) is based on a French play that became a delightful addition to the Beaumarchais trilogy about Figaro. Opera lovers already know The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, and Chérubin takes place just after the crazy wedding day of Figaro and Susanna. It could even be called Figaro fanfiction—the story revolves around Cherubino, the amorous teenager, and the general confusion caused by his antics. Véronique Mercier sings “Je suis gris (I am drunk)”
  5. Thaïs isn’t Massenet’s only sword-and-sandals era opera-Hérodiade features the same basic storyline as Strauss’ Salome, telling the story of Salome’s love for John the Baptist among the politics of the court of Herod and Herodias. Strauss’ version is based on a play by Oscar Wilde, but Massenet’s was inspired by a Belle Ėpoque novel by Gustave Flaubert. The Gallic operatic version is far less psychological and bloody, and more focused on the doomed obsession of Salomé with the man of God. Thomas Hampson sings “Vision fugitive”

Given the scope of Massenet’s output and the fact that most American opera companies focus their energies on productions of Manon and Werther, there are at least ten other operas that should have been included. Hopefully new Massenet fans will continue to dive into his lesser-known works after listening to these excerpts.