Giuseppe Verdi


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Giacomo Puccini

SATURDEE OPRY LINKS 71: Massenet Edition

                                       Jules Massenet

Saturdee Opry Links Overture!
Verdi: Un Giorno di Regno

Barbara Smith Conrad
Today's SOL is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Smith Conrad, who passed in 2017 at age 80. As a nineteen-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas, she was removed from the cast of a university production of Gluck's "Dido and Aeneas" because she was black. She became a national cause celebre, championed by Harry Belafonte, Eleanor Roosevelt and others. She remained at the school, completed her bachelor's degree, and went on to sing at the New York City Opera and the Met. Here is a clip from a documentary about her life, "When I Rise."

Here is an extraordinary performance of "En fermant les yeux" ("When I close my eyes") from Massenet's "Manon," sung in German by Fritz Wunderlich. (I listened to four or five, and this one said, "Post me!") 
Role: Chevalier Des Grieux, a nobleman, son of Count Des Grieux
Setting: Apartment of Chevalier Des Grieux, Paris, France, 18th century
Synopsis: In order to cheer Manon up, Des Grieux relates to her a dream that he has had. He has dreamed that someday he will own a house surrounded by beautiful flowers and singing birds. However, he realizes that his dream was still drear because it lacks one thing : Manon.
When I close my eyes I see far away a modest retreat,
a little cottage lost in the middle of the woods!
Under the quiet shade,
the clear and joyous streams,
in which the leaves are reflected,
sing with the birds!
It's Paradise!
Oh no, everything there is sad and melancholy,
because one thing is missing:
Manon ought to be present!

Leopold Simoneau was a French-Canadian lyric tenor with an especially beautiful tone, as you will hear. What he lacked in heroic tenor range, he compensated for with earnest, warm interpretation. There is power in that, too. Here he is with the titanic aria, "O Souverain" from "Le Cid," by Massenet.
Role : Rodrigue, a knight
Setting : Rodrigue's tent, outside Burgos, Spain, 11th century
Synopsis : Just before a battle against an overwhelming army of Moors, Rodrigue prays for victory. 

About Simoneau:

Here for the sake of comparison, is the great Joseph Schmidt, the "Pocket Caruso," also with "O Souverain" from Massenet's "Le Cid." I could not choose between the lyric beauty of Simoneau (previous post) and the lyric power of Schmidt. Both are very moving, need it be said. . .Schmidt sings it here in his native German. As always, SOL notes the tragedy of Schmidt's life, how he was prevented from singing in U.S. opera houses because he was under five feet tall, and how, while touring Europe, he found himself fleeing the Nazis (he was Jewish) and taking cover in a Swiss refugee camp, where he died of a heart attack at 38. See previous post for synopsis and translation. 

Jules Massenet

Jules Massenet was enormously successful in the late 19th century, with over 40 works for state, including many operas. By the time of his death in 1912, he was considered old-fashioned, dated, with only the operas, "Werther," and "Manon" still staged (as they are today.) A shy man, he never once took a curtain call. Here, tenor Nicolai Gedda sings what is perhaps Massenet's best known tenor aria, "Pourquoi me Reveiller," ("Why do you awaken me?") from "Werther." I listened to four or five excellent renditions of this just now. Gedda's was head-and-shoulders above, and that includes Placido Domingo, Georges Thill, Ferrucio Tagliavini. 
Role: Werther, a poet, about 23 years old
Setting: the Magistrate's house at Christmas, Frankfurt, Germany, 1780
Synopsis: Werther has come back to see Charlotte, his love who is married to another man. She shows him some of the books that they used to read together. One book in particular, a collection of Ossain's verses, sparks Werther to ask spring to cease its gentle caresses upon him, for sadness and grief is now his fate.

There was a tradition, even a de facto competition, among late 19th century opera composers, to write a bit of memorable intermezzo music to go between scenes---without singing. Massenet's opera, "Thais," is chiefly memorable for the incidental "Meditation" he wrote, appearing between the scenes of act two. The strange irony is that this is far and away the most memorable melody and music in the entire opera! Point being: here, the guy writes a great, beautiful melody for an opera, but no one sings it! You'd think he might have thought, hell, that's too good to not make it into an aria. Anyhow, here it is, the "Meditation" from "Thais." 

"Manon" is Massenet's most popular and enduring opera, regarded as an example of the charm and vitality of the music and culture of the Parisian Belle Époque. (The opera was a mainstay of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, reaching its 1,000th performance there in 1919, its 1,500th in 1931 and 2,000th in 1952.) Here is an excerpt from a production updated to what appears to be the 1920's, from some no doubt profound reason. Anyhow, it's nice and colorful, and has Anna Netrebko, which compensates for much. 
This is the pleasant trifle, "Je marche sur tous les chemins," which I think means, "I march through your fur coats."
Role: Manon Lescaut, a young woman, cousin of Lescaut
Setting: A busy square in Paris, France, 18th century
Synopsis: Manon appears in the crowd and tells her admirers about her philosophy to live only for the moment, caring not what happens afterwards. After all, there is little time in youth. One should spend it loving, singing, and dancing.
Oh, cousin, please excuse me!

She's charming!

I'm still completely dizzy,
I feel numb all over!
Cousin, forgive me!
Excuse an emotional moment!
I'm still totally dizzy!
Please forgive my chattering,
this is the first trip I've ever taken!
The coach had scarcely started to move
when I opened my eyes wide watching
the little villages, the forest, the plain,
the passengers, both young and old.
Cousin, forgive me,
it's the first time I've travelled!
Attentively I saw the trees rush by,
trembling in the wind.
And overwhelmed with delight
I was forgetting that I was leaving for the convent!
Faced with so many new things,
don't laugh when I tell you
that I thought I had wings
and was flying to paradise!
Yes, cousin!
Then, I felt a moment of sadness,
I cried, I don't know what about.
Then the very next minute, I confess
I was laughing, ha, ha, ha, etc.
I was laughing, but without knowing why!
Cousin, excuse me,
cousin, forgive me!
I'm still completely dizzy, etc.

One Massenet’s most famous melodies, “Elegy,” came into being in a roundabout way: it originated from an unfinished opera, then was used in an Aeschylus adaptation called "The Erinnyes," then was arranged for cello and orchestra, and finally was released as a song. It later changed into a jackrabbit and moved to Arizona. The melody of the “Elegy” has become a standard. (Even Art Tatum once covered it!).
"O sweet springtimes of old verdant seasons
You have fled forever
I no longer see the blue sky
I no longer hear the bird's joyful singing
. . ."
(A song for our time!)
There are so many great renditions on Youtube: Angela Gheorghiu, Caruso, Chaliapin, Domingo, Jussi Bjorling, and. . .Beniamino Gigli. 

And here is Angela Gheorghiu, too fine to not post: 

Art Tatum!

Sentimental? "Farewell, our little table," sings Manon in Massenet's "Manon." And yet who has not felt such sentimentality? (Therein lies a clue as to the appeal of opera.) Anna Netrebko sings with tenderness, poignancy. "Adieu notre petite table. . ."
Role: Manon Lescaut, a young woman, cousin of Lescaut
Setting: Apartment of Chevalier Des Grieux, Paris, France, 18th century
Synopsis: Manon has been told by a nobleman that her love Des Grieux will soon be kidnapped by his father's men in order to get him away from her. She knows that the happy days they have spent in Des Grieux's apartment will soon be at an end and takes the opportunity to bid adieu to the table at which she and her love ate many meals together. 

After that weeper over a piece of furniture, here is something more breezy---"Du gai soleil" ("From the gay (old meaning) sun"), from Massenet's "Werther." Nice production. The soprano is Lisette Oropesa. 
Role: Sophie, daughter of the Magistrate, Charlotte's sister
Setting: in front of a church, Frankfurt, Germany, 1780
Synopsis: Sophie is in a good mood and tells of her happiness, saying that all the world is joyful with her.

A lesson with Lisette! 

Our all-Massenet edition ends with the fine tenor aria, "Je suis seul. . .Ah! fuyez, douce image," from "Manon." ("Vanish sweet memory too dear to my heart.") I think we can all identify with this, eh, kids? 
Role: Chevalier Des Grieux, a nobleman, son of Count Des Grieux
Setting: The reception room in St. Sulpice church, France, 18th century
Synopsis: After entering the seminary in order to forget about Manon, Des Grieux finds that he is unable to forget his love for her. He prays to God to remove this shadow from his heart.
I am alone! At last alone!
It is the supreme moment!
There is nothing more that I want
except the sacred calm that my faith brings me.
Yes, I have sought to place God himself
between the world and me.
Ah! Vanish sweet memory too dear to my heart;
respect a calm won through much suffering,
and remember that if I have tasted of a bitter cup,
my heart could fill it full with the blood it has shed!
Ah! Vanish, vanish, go far from me!
Life itself and sham glory mean nothing to me.
I want only to expel from the depths of my memory...
A cursed name!... this name... which obsesses me, and why?

The service is beginning.

I'm on my way... Heavenly Father!
With Your fire
purify my soul!
and by its light dispel
the shadow that still lurks in the depths of my heart!
Ah! Vanish, sweet memory, too dear to my heart.
Vanish, vanish, go far away from me! etc.

Saturdee Opry Links Encore!
Just because today's edition was not exactly full of chirping birds and blooming flowers, here's a nice capper. Villazon, Netrebko, and Domingo have a good time with Lehar's "Dein ist Mein Ganzes Herz." See you next week in a brand new show. 

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