About this Recording
8.573123 - MASSENET, J.: Ballet Music - Bacchus / Hérodiade / Thaïs / Le Cid (Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, P. Gallois)
English  French 

Jules Massenet (1842–1912)
Ballet Music: Bacchus • Hérodiade • Thaïs • Le Cid


Jules Massenet was born in 1842 at Montaud, near Saint- Etienne, the youngest of eleven children, including the children of his father by his first marriage. His mother, Eléonore-Adelaïde Roye de Marancour, was the daughter of a well-to-do official, known, at least, to the Duchess of Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI, and his father, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, had served as a staff officer, until the defeat of Napoleon, when he resigned his commission. The family prosperity depended on his father’s activity as a foundry-owner and a producer of scythes. A decline in business led the family to move in 1847 from Saint-Etienne to Paris, where Madame Massenet supplemented the family income by giving piano lessons, her youngest son among her pupils. At the age of eleven Massenet entered the Conservatoire, where, in 1863, he won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata David Rizzio. His residence in Rome at the Villa Medici brought some respite from the period when, as a student, he had found it necessary to support himself by serving as a percussionist at the Opéra and as a café pianist. In Rome he met Liszt, who introduced him to Mme de Sainte-Marie, whose daughter became his piano pupil and, two years later, his wife.

Success in Paris came to Massenet through the support of his teacher at the Conservatoire, Ambroise Thomas, and of his enterprising publisher Georges Hartmann. After a series of attempts at opera, only one of which had briefly reached the stage, in 1872 he won his first operatic success with the Victor Hugo adaptation Don César de Bazan, followed in 1873 by the concert sacred drama Marie-Magdeleine, a choice of heroine that was characteristic in an age that made much of the repentance of a fallen woman. Manon, in 1884, established his position without question, although the next opera, Le Cid, staged at the Opéra in 1885, at first failed to please. Werther, based on Goethe’s novel, followed, in order of composition, first performed in 1892 at the Vienna Court Opera and in Paris. The coincidence of a new libretto, based on a medieval romance, and a meeting with the young American soprano Sybil Sanderson, lay behind the opera Esclarmonde, staged at the Opéra-Comique in 1890, and Massenet was to write eighteen more operas in the following years, until his final Cléopâtre, a drame passionnel, first staged in February 1914 in Monte Carlo, seventeen months after Massenet’s death.

Bacchus, with a libretto by Catulle Mendès, was first presented at the Paris Opéra in May 1909, three months after the sudden death of Mendès, whose body was found in a railway tunnel in February, presumably after an accident in alighting from his compartment before his train had reached the station. A well know writer and critic, Mendès had written the libretto for Massenet’s earlier opera Ariane, treating a related subject. Ariadne (Ariane), abandoned by Theseus (Thésée) on the island of Naxos, is the object of Bacchus’s love, and he disguises himself as Theseus, in pursuit of his aims. Bacchus travels to India, followed by Ariadne, who takes him for Theseus, and the two are imprisoned by Queen Amahelli, who herself falls in love with Bacchus. He agrees to marry the Queen, in return for Ariadne’s release, but Ariadne is to be sacrificed, a fate she willingly accepts. The opera was a failure and was withdrawn after six performances. The ballet, in the third act, is set in the Indian forest. [1] A Nocturne reveals the scene in moonlight, [2] followed by the appearance of fauns and satyrs, [3] a procession of offerings on the altar of Bacchus, and [4] the entrance of huntresses and bacchantes. [5][8] The solemn initiation of devotees into the new religion proclaimed by Bacchus leads to [9] the baptism of wine, presided over by an image of the god, who distributes bread and wine to the people in a ceremony foreshadowing future black sabbaths, [10] reflected again in a final Bacchanale.

The subject of Hérodiade had been under discussion with the Italian publisher Ricordi as early as 1877. The libretto by Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, based on a story by Flaubert, was then translated into Italian by Angelo Zanardini and Massenet continued to hope for a first performance at La Scala, which, in the event, mounted the opera three months after the première in December 1881 in Brussels at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, an occasion attended by four hundred enthusiasts who had travelled from Paris. While other opera-houses had apparently competed for the chance to stage the work, the Paris Opéra, perhaps because of the nature of the subject, had refused to perform it. In a narrative markedly different from that of the Bible and that of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, Massenet’s opera treats the story of Herod, Herodias (Hérodiade), Salome and St John the Baptist. John objects to the marriage of Herod and his brother’s widow Herodias. Herod has fallen in love with Salome, apparently motherless, who has followed John to Jerusalem, her love for him openly declared. The priests accuse John of heresy, but Herod wishes to save him, as a possibly useful ally. John, however, is imprisoned and when Salome intercedes for him with Herod, declaring her love, Herod gives up any attempt to save either of them. In the last act Vitellius, the Roman pro-consul, and his followers are entertained by Herod with the exotic dances of girls from Egypt, Babylon, Gaul and Phoenicia, a display interrupted by the news of John’s execution and Salome’s attempt to kill Herodias, who now reveals herself as Salome’s mother. In despair Salome kills herself.

Thaïs takes a libretto by Louis Gallet, based on a novel by Anatole France, and was first staged at the Opéra in March 1894, to be revised in 1898. The courtesan Thaïs, a rôle written for the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson, shocks the ascetic cenobite Athanaël, who, in his monastic cell, is tormented by visions of her and resolves to bring about her conversion. The famous Méditation, a second act intermezzo, marks her conversion and resolve to follow Athanaël, who conducts her to a desert convent, where she is to spend the rest of her life. In a storm Athanaël is again troubled by a vision of Thaïs, who is dying, and, in love himself, makes his way to the convent, where she lies on her deathbed. She dies, leaving Athanaël to confess his love for her over her body. In the original version Massenet had included a scene of temptation in the second part of Act III, as Athanaël sleeps in his cell. [16] From the deep shadow about him, as he sleeps, a light starts to glow and evil small creatures appear about his bed, the Seven Spirits of Temptation. They move like images in a dream and, gathering about Athanaël, attack him with their nails, seeking to take his soul. They drive him before them, with hellish glee. [17] They all disappear and there emerges from the dark night a new world, a beautiful garden with fine buildings and flowers. The soul of the saint, possessed, leads the body, its slave. The Seven Spirits bring in Athanaël, troubled and afraid, and describe to him the beauties of the place, arousing the fallen souls. They are joined by other figures. Athanaël submits, and the spirits urge him to the delight of the supreme seductress. A demon in the guise of a woman, Perdition, appears, accompanied by a solemn procession, as from some rite. [18] Suddenly Perdition, shaking her long hair, leaps into the midst of the gathering, charming and seducing them. [19] The Seven Spirits summon the powerful guardians of the riches of the sea, and Sirens appear, with shells, coral and mother-of-pearl, followed by Tritons with their conches, all offered by Perdition to Athanaël. [20] Perdition lets these riches sparkle before the eyes of Athanaël, who smiles at the honour done him. [21] Gnomes, spirits of the earth, bring their offerings, fruits, perfumes, jewels, in tribute only to Athanaël. Perdition plays with the jewels and the spirits show Athanaël, in his humble dress, to the mockery of the crowd. [22] Sphinxes sow doubt, and Perdition, in triumph, whirls around him, offering cups of impure drunkenness; Athanaël is defeated. [23] There is a clash of sound, and then sweet music is heard, sacred organs, like a breath of heaven. In the sky a star appears, the Star of Redemption. Athanaël wakes, realising its meaning; now he is saved, but he has changed. Perdition tries to seize him again; the star grows fainter, and Perdiion raises him up again; he is lost. [24] In a wild sabbath spirits dance about in tumult and finally the groans of the damned are heard and Perdition leads the round. Suddenly the spirit of Thaïs appears, only to fade, as the dance resumes. [25] All grows quiet, as Perdition leads the captive soul; the scene dissolves; it is dusk, then night; the dream is finished.

Le Cid, based on the play by Corneille, has a libretto by Adolphe d’Ennery, Louis Gallet and Edouard Blau and was first staged at the Opéra in November 1885. Loved by Chimène, Rodrigue swears to avenge his father’s honour, an oath that leads him to kill Chimène’s father, the Count of Gormas, who has insulted Rodrigue’s father. Rodrigue leads the Spanish armies against the Moors, leaving Chimène to resolve the conflict in her heart between filial duty and love. Matters seem to have been settled when news is brought of Rodrigue’s death in battle, but finally he returns triumphant, to be forgiven by Chimène. The ballet-music of the second act of Le Cid, marking popular celebration, includes a series of typical Spanish dances, popular elements of standard concert repertoire.

Keith Anderson

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