09 Jan 2011

Operatic Advice and Counsel…A Welcome New Reference Book

Vincent Giroud’s valuable new French Opera, a Short History, is in hand and very welcome it is.

For all the currency of a few Bizet, Massenet and Gounod chestnuts, and the occasional appearance of a well-polished rarity such as Pelleas et Melisande, French opera in general is something of a hidden treasure.

I recall around 1990 when the new Opera Bastille was being inaugurated in Paris, it opened with Berlioz’ celebrated masterwork, Les Troyens, a well-judged and appropriate nod to a great cultural history. But then, the repertory wandered off into a mix of international opera most of it with little relevance to the history of French opera. Had they wished to show the strength of France’s operatic history, Paris Opera could easily have mounted several weeks of strictly French operas, each one of them a work of merit and interest.

Splendor is what the period of mid-1800s through the first part of the 20th C. had to offer to operatic France, and to the world. I wondered at the time why French opera powers did not open their capacious new modern house in the Place Bastille with a run of French composed operas that, in addition to the Berlioz, might include two or three enduring successes of Massenet, the standards of Gounod and Ambroise Thomas, of course Charpentier’s Louise, but including later novelties such as Massenet’s Jongleur de Notre-Dame and the Marouf of Henri Rabaud, even Enesco’s Oedipe — names everyone knows from books, but who has heard them? The recent successful revival of Pelleas et Melisande, vividly conducted by Simon Rattle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, again demonstrates the durability of Debussy’s highly original masterpiece that in the right hands becomes stunning music theatre. Giroud, a distinguished librarian and music scholar, assures us there are many more waiting to be heard. So, the French are like anyone else, and maybe more so, in that genius, or at least quality, is often not recognized at home.

Mr. Giroud’s new book indirectly takes cognizance of this point, for while he necessarily includes in his chronological history, running from Rameau and Gluck to Satie and Messiaen, just about every name to be found in history books, and his commentary is always well-informed and thoughtful, the reader will profit most from his discussion of the rarities — the French operas we know of but do not know, many of which, as Giroud points out, have much to offer. For standard repertory, the reader will not experience much new insight, though the discussions are rich and balanced. On the other hand, once Faust, Carmen, Manon, Werther, Mignon, Samson et Dalila and Louise are disposed of, the new history really earns its fee with discussions of the lesser known masters of the Second Empire era when the Paris Conservatory ruled musical Europe (pace Wagner), up through the crisis of WWI, and a certain revival of composition in France in the 1920s and especially the 1930s.

I come away from Giroud keen to hear productions of Adolphe Adam, Victor Massé, Ernest Reyer, Alfred Bruneau and late Massenet (after 1900). Our author lauds the Roumanian-born, Paris-trained, Georges Enesco whose Oedipe, Giroud claims is, “the greatest French opera of the period (1936);” a current and highly regarded recording with bass Jose van Dam attests to this sound judgment.

From Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902) to Chérubin and several others, Giroud recommends the last decade of Jules Massenet’s compositions as much underrated and deserving of revival, calling Massenet a composer comparable to Puccini and Strauss who, “has yet to be fully recognized in his own country.” This opera lover was fortunate to hear in 1989 Chérubin, and in 2006, Cendrillon in original productions at Santa Fe Opera, the excellence of which supports our author’s claim. Giroud also discusses Alfred Bruneau, “a prime candidate for revival,” and he tells why. I’d love to follow his advice!

I put the new Giroud history of French opera alongside the 2008 reissue of George Whitney Martin’s great standard The Opera Companion, as must-have essentials for any opera lover’s library. Where they both treat the same material, Gounod’s Faust for example, comparison of their disparate views makes for lively reading, in fact one can say that of the whole Giroud book.

J. A. Van Sant © 2011