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Jules Massenet: Esclarmonde
30 May 2007

MASSENET: Esclarmonde

Just as sausage can be best enjoyed without any extensive knowledge of its preparation and contents, one should slide slowly into the luxuriant bath that is Massenet’s Esclarmonde and leave the libretto far to the side.

Jules Massenet: Esclarmonde

Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Huguette Tourangeau (Parséis), Clifford Grant (L'Empereur Phorcas), Giacomo Aragall (Le Chevalier Roland), Luois Quilico (L'Evêque de Blois), Ryland Davies (Enéas), Robert Lloyd (Cléomer, Roi de France), John Alldis Choir, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Bonynge (cond.)

Decca Classic Opera 475 7914 [3CDs]

$36.49  Click to buy

Decca, in its Classic Opera series, does provide a French/English libretto, along with a synopsis. A health warning should accompany these items; one could laugh oneself into apoplexy at the ludicrous, unmotivated, all-effect-no-cause goings on. But with a fine cast and a true believer in the score, Richard Bonynge, leading the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the recording makes for an irresistible, artery-clogging treat.

In Byzantium, magician/emperor Phorcas (the forecast is for silliness) plans a tournament, at the conclusion of which, the winner will take the hand of his daughter, Esclarmonde. She must wait until her 20th year for this momentous day, but the hard-headed minx has the hots for the hero Roland. She casts a spell to bring him to an enchanted island, entrances him in ways a valiant soldier appreciates, but forbids him to look beneath her veil, let alone ask her name. Being the great hero that he is, Roland saves his hometown from a crushing military defeat, but then he refuses the hand of the King’s daughter, since he loves Esclarmonde. Having affronted the King, Roland has to reveal his reason, which breaks his vow to Esclarmonde. She would forgive him, but her father forbids it and forces her to renounce the hero to save his life. However, upon her 20th birthday, the tournament is held, and the masked knight who wins both the contest and Esclarmonde is — Roland!

So we have a mish-mash of early Wagner, especially Lohengrin, and a bit of Alcina. It takes a prologue, four acts and an epilogue for Massenet to deliver this nonsense, and though Decca could have squeezed the opera onto two discs, they chose to preserve the illusion of dramatic coherence by spreading it out by act breaks over three discs. Massenet’s melodic inspiration didn't blossom as lyrically as in his more famous scores, but his gift for orchestral color gets a full work out. Horns dominate, aside large, almost cantata-like blocks of music for chorus.

Bonygne assembled a tremendous cast, starting with his wife, Joan Sutherland. Esclarmonde lies between her studio triumph as Turandot and her many stage successes in bel canto roles. Sutherland gets to sing more lyrically and passionately than one usually expects from her, and she sounds simply gorgeous. As Roland, Giacomo Aragall gives evidence of the beauty and power of his voice that makes one shake one’s head that he never quite established himself as the star he could have been. The supporting cast, all excellent, features Huguette Tourangeau, Clifford Grant, Louis Quilico, Robert Lloyd, and a young Graham Clark.

So depending on one’s appetite for high-fat, low-protein musical concoctions, this Esclarmonde will either delight or revolt. The opera certainly couldn't receive a finer performance.

Chris Mullins

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