Reassessing Massenet’s “Le Cid”

Le Cid

MASSENET: Le Cid / Theodor Hodges, baritone (Don Alonzo); Paul Plishka, bass (Don Diègue); Grace Bumbry, soprano (Chimène); Placido Domingo, tenor (Rodrigue/Le Cid); Jake Gardner, baritone (King Alfonso VI); Eleanor Bergquist, soprano (L’Infante); Arnold Voketaitis, bass (Count Gormaz); Clinton Ingram, tenor (Don Arias); Peter Lightfoot, bass (L’Envoye Maure); John Adams, bass (St. Jacques); Byrne Camp Chorale; Opera Orchestra of New York; Eve Queler, conductor / Sony Classical 888880973313 (Live: Carnegie Hall, New York, March 1976)

How many of you reading this, or people you know, own this recording and/or love this opera? Very few, I’ll bet. Yet this opera, and specifically this performance, are so good that once you hear them you may be wondering why on earth people still listen to Massenet’s far more rubbishy operas, such as Esclarmonde, Thaïs or Don Quixote, or even the terribly long and very uneven Manon, and not Le Cid. Yet its continued unpopularity is stunning. Although revived in 2014 for Roberto Alagna and infrequently performed nowadays, it is still considered an oddity, a rarity, and—this is what irritates me—“inferior” Massenet.

Witness, for instance, this excerpt from the Gramophone review when this recording was reissued on CD in 1990. Yes, the reviewer gives faint praise to the opera’s construction (more on that in a bit), but it is largely negative:

To an extent, the composer is out of his element, and his score often resorts to what LS in his original review called “empty gestures”: there’s a ready-made musical language, as in a film score, in which a certain kind of chord or orchestration indicates a moment of high tension, and so forth. Yet for all that, it does survive as an opera worth reviving from time to time—as a whole, that is, and not just in the famous (or once-famous) ‘bits’.

And what are those “bits”? Why, largely the ballet music, which is unquestionably among the greatest and most popular every written (despite no other commercial recording of the complete opera, there are multiple versions of the ballet music, although mostly without the chorus in the “Navarraise”) and the famous arias for Chimène and Rodrigue (Le Cid). You’d think this opera was as unpopular as Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, although when you scratch beneath the surface you might find that L’Africaine (if and when people actually hear it) is not really that unpopular either.

When you listen to the complete Le Cid…well, at least when I listened to the complete opera…I was blown away. Yes, there is a live performance of this opera given in Washington in the early 1980s, also featuring Domingo as Le Cid, with more exciting conducting by one Emmanuel Villaume, but the Chimène and Don Diègue are not particularly good singers. Moreover, as the opera picks up steam Eve Queler’s conducting is as good as any I have heard in any given scene, even when comparing her to the old 1901 Mapleson cylinder excerpts featuring the lead role’s creator, Jean de Reszke. (The other big name singers in the original cast were Jean de Reszke’s younger brother Edouard, the resonant baritone Léon Melchissidec, elegant basso Pol Plançon and a name completely forgotten today, Fidès Devriès. as Chimène.)

Le Cid front cover

Original LP cover

Yes, Le Cid is a “pageant opera,” written for a special occasion, as was Verdi’s Aida. Yes, it is evident that, in writing such a work  (which was not his regular style). Massenet closely studied the grand operas of both Meyerbeer and Verdi (both Aida and Don Carlo). But the final product, although using techniques and structure from those earlier works, was by no means derivative or unoriginal. Not a single note in Le Cid sounds like Meyerbeer or Verdi; it all sounds like Massenet and only like Massenet; but the music has so much more vigor, drive and excitement in it that it sounds like Massenet on steroids.

The “crowd scenes,” composed for the chorus, is one such indication. Both Meyerbeer and Verdi were masters of choral writing, and this something that Massenet was not that heavily involved in, thus when he approached Le Cid he had to extend his technique in that specific kind of composition, but I would argue that the choral writing in Le Cid is Massenet’s finest. He also showed that, like Verdi but unlike Meyerbeer, who often inflated his crowd scenes for visual effect, Massenet knew how to write such scenes with deft, quick strokes. “O noble lame,” the scene celebrating Rodrigue’s knighthood, comes and goes in almost no time at all. Meyerbeer would sure have made this a ten-minute extravaganza.


Bombry, Domingo, Queler and Plishka after the 1976 performance

Another striking resemblance yet difference comes in the third act, which is structured almost exactly the same as the first scene of Act IV of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. We have an introduction, a soprano aria, and then a long soprano-tenor duet, in fact the dramatic centerpiece of the opera. I fully admit that Meyerbeer’s soprano-tenor duet is one of the most masterful things he ever composed and that Massenet didn’t quite hit the same heights in his duet; yet the music is both melodically and dramatically interesting, and the mere fact that he avoided any resemblance to the similar duets in Huguenots and Don Carlo tells you that he understood the basic nature and function of such a piece from a dramatic standpoint, and he delivers with one of his own best duets ever.

Unless you’ve heard the complete opera, you also don’t know how Rodrigue’s famous aria, “O souverain, o juge, o pêre,” really goes. In the context of the opera, towards the end, the tenor sings one repeated note in his phrase while a choir of celestial angels and the voice of St. Jacques are heard intertwining around him. Another masterstroke, and one the majority of opera lovers have never heard.

As for the performance, it is splendid. The little-known singers who fill the roles of King Alfonso, Count Gormaz, the Infante and Don Arias all had wonderful voices and outstanding thespian skills. Grace Bumbry, here at the beginning of her soprano years, was still in full control of her upper range, which here surprisingly resembles that of Martina Arroyo. I am not a big fan of Placido Domingo, generally finding his voice to be tight, dry and strained on the top, and so I will not say that his singing here is ideal (by rights, this role should have been sung by Jon Vickers, whose large, warm voice had some resemblance to that of Jean de Reszke), but he gives it his all and surprisingly manages a few moments of tenderness atypical of him. It is certainly better sung than the performance by Roberto Alagna on YouTube. Paul Plishka’s huge bass voice always sounded a bit loose in vibrato on radio and recordings, whereas in person it was as steady as a rock until it fell apart in the late 1980s, and he is splendid here. And as noted earlier, once past the overture and first scene, Queler’s conducting is terribly exciting and enlivening.

quelerOperFrankfurt-HRAll in all, then, this is a work that deserves to be performed much more often. But I noted that the last performance in France before 2015 was in 1919, right after World War I, and this was also generally the era in which Meyerbeer’s operas lost steam and fell out of the standard repertoire. Public taste for large-scale Grand Opera pageants simply changed during that period, but nowadays I don’t see any reason why both L’Africaine and Le Cid shouldn’t be getting first-rate performances by the best singers and conductors. They certainly deserve it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley


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