In the 1960s, conductor Robert Lawrence founded an organization in New York called Friends of French Opera, for which he felt there was a need because, as he explained in New Yorker article (February 1979), the preceding 30 years had seen the active repertory of operas sung in French reduced to a mere handful, notably Carmen, with an occasional Faust, Manon, Pelléas, or Romeo and Juliet. Over a period of years, he undertook to revive a substantial number of French operas.
This month Gil Rose functioned as the director of a miniature FFO in Boston by preparing a performance of Jules Massenet’s Le Cid, a four-act grand opera never before performed here. Grand it certainly was, running to a total of 3¾ hours with a single intermission between the second and third acts. At its Paris premiere in 1885, there would have been two further intermissions extending the running time past four hours.
In a concert performance even without the requisite sets and costumes the scope of the work is clearly large in terms of the number of performers. An onstage orchestra of 74 players supplemented by 10 offstage brass instruments and a full chorus numbering 62 quite filled the Jordan Hall stage, even with its extension. There was just room along the front strip with stage for the nine singers in the solo roles.
As for the opera itself, Le Cid was a major success for Massenet in his own lifetime. It was repeated often until just after World War I, when it began to fade—though it is still mounted occasionally. One can see the Washington Opera production, from which Odyssey Opera borrowed the super titles, on YouTube. But although that offers the advantage of seeing the stage elements, no digital reproduction can match the sheer energy, the sonic force, of a live performance. This was certainly true Friday night from the opening overture, in which the orchestra proved to be first rate, powering the entire evening. (To be sure, concert productions with no orchestra pit always risk that the orchestra, set on the same level as the singers, will tends to overwhelm them. This problem was not entirely avoided on Friday night, but these singers came forth with powerful voices to meet it.)
Massenet’s most popular works—those that have settled into the more-or-less steady repertory of French opera—are very different in character from the warlike elements of this Spanish Medieval plot. Though it was based on a classic drama by Corneille, it required of the composer to spend much of the evening—especially the first two acts—in establishing and working out the reason why the Count Gormas should insult a highly honored elderly warrior, Don Diègue, thereby leading to his death in a duel. All this was evidently less congenial to the composer, whose technique carried him through without striking sparks in his imagination.
Fanfares, assertions of soldierly prowess, angry disputes, self-aggrandizement, and macho challenges—it all unfolded with music that seemed relatively tuneless, backed by busy loud music in the orchestra (I imagine Verdi would have had a field day with this quarrelsome crew). Except for the music of Chimène, enamored of Rodrigue, and of the gracious yielding of the Infanta, who was too high to marry a lower-class soldier, even if she loved him, most of the music of these acts seemed relatively repetitious in mood and style.
Happily, that situation changed for the second half, in which Rodrigue is sent to lead an army against the Moors (his killing of Chimène’s father being set aside for the moment). The love duet that opens the third act seems like the first really genuine Massenet since early in Act I, but things move faster, and with more musical variety after that: A hearty chorus of soldiers offers a bit of comic relief, and Rodrigue’s prayer before battle has with justification long been the best-known part of the score. The final act involves tidying up, dramatically speaking: celebrating the victory over the Moors, and the final, long-delayed resolution of Chimène’s wavering feelings about Rodrigue.
Gil Rose has shown many times that he has a sharp sense for theatrical timing. He moved the work along briskly, especially during the military sections, and allowed the lyrical passages ample room to swell and grow. Despite the occasional passages of less inspired music (as they seem to me), he made a strong case for the score.
Given the subject matter of the opera, it is scarcely surprising that brass instruments would often predominate, both onstage and off. But it was especially the more delicate passages in which Massenet showed himself to best effect. In some of the Spanish tunes of the famous ballet (superbly played, and the absolute highlight of the first half), the two flutes (Sarah Brady and Rachel Braude) and principal clarinet (Jan Halloran) were frequently featured, blending beautifully with the lighter string accompaniment. And principal oboe Jennifer Slowik had some particularly expressive parts, including highly decorative faux-Moorish material, in the last act.
Among the singers, Paul Groves took on the challenging title role of Rodrigue, El Cid. It calls for a wider range of responses, from the macho military mood that characterizes the other male characters, to passionate expressions of love and an intense outpouring of prayer. He had both the powerful projection and the expressive range required.
His romantic counterpart, Tamara Mancini, making her Odyssey Opera debut in the role of Chimène, had equal strength, sometimes displayed with an almost macho force, as when demanding that her lover be tried for killing her father. A good part of her role has her shuttling back and forth between expressions of rage and expressions of love as she contends with conflicting feelings of anger and love toward Rodrigue. She handled it very well, though one might have wished for Massenet to get on with it. Still, her first act aria and the more complex elements of the last two acts offered her a good deal to do. .
The men in the remaining three principal parts all had roles emphasizing the military side of the situation, for which Massenet gave them music that was assertive, loud, and largely made of repeated notes, with relatively little tunefulness. Nonetheless they offered enough variety to represent their contrasting characters. Oren Gradus, playing Don Diègue, the elderly father of Rodrigue, seemed almost too vigorous for an aging knight no longer able to defend himself from a slur on his honor, but his dark bass voice translated as elderly in traditional operatic terms. Michael Chioldi brought a fine strong baritone to the role of the King, though the role itself was dramatically slight, mostly requiring royal proclamations. Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter was the Count Gormas, who provoked the duel of honor by insulting Rodrigue’s father, well projected the arrogant personality that led to his death.
Soprano Eleni Calenos shone as the Infanta, who chose not to compete for the man she loved by reason of her higher rank. Her early duet with Chimène was one of the musical highlights of the evening. Local favorite Robert Honeysucker took on the small but touching role of Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, appearing in the balcony of Jordan Hall to respond to Rodrigue’s prayer before battle. David Salsbery Fry and Ethan Bremner were hearty courtiers and soldiers in the opening scenes.
For its third single-production-season, Odyssey Opera offered a full-scale performance of a large work that had not been performed in Boston since 1902 and may well never be staged here, given its challenging scope. Those who packed Jordan Hall enthusiastically cheered this welcome encounter with a production of such skill and energy.