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 as 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.
Yet when you listen to the complete opera…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 much 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.)
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.