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Jules Massenet composed 25 works for the operatic stage (not including early pieces lost or left unfinished), but only a handful have survived the test of time. While recordings of these are particularly bountifu1 (especially Manon and Werther), this is not true of such works as Le mage, which has waited a long time for its debut on disc.


The 1891 composition is, as it turns out, a throw-back--a five-act grand opera filled with spectacle, large choruses and the prerequisite ballet, all in the mould of such Massenet works as Le roi de Lahore. Herodiade and Le Cid. Who could have imagined that Werther, a more forward-looking piece and today one of Massenet's most-performed operas, would premiere in Vienna the following year?

The plot of Le mage is similar to that ofVerdi's A ida. Varedha, daughter of the High Priest, Amrou, loves Zarastra, a Persian general who has vanquished their Touranian enemies. Zarastra, however, is in love with Anahita, the captive Touranian queen. Although Varedha pursues him relentlessly through the course of the five acts, Zarasta's love For Anahita remains fast. Consumed with rage. Varedha expires as the final curtain falls.

Although this recent release is welcome, the music is mostly unremarkable. Many of Massenet's colleagues, in fact, viewed this as his weakest opera. The score opens, for example, with a somewhat banal three-note motif (G-F-D), which is repeated endlessly to unintentional, almost comedic, effect. There are a couple of decent arias, notably Varedha's Act I "Pourqoui lui rester rebelle?" Act III also has some appealing, atmospheric music for tenor (Zarastra) and chorus, but Act IV is taken up largely with the lengthy, musically forgettable ballet.

The cast, largely unknown to me, is more than serviceable and sounds fully committed to this project. Both mezzo. Kate Aldrich (Varedha) and soprano Catherine Hunold (Anahita) turn in solid performances, although top notes can sound strained. On the other hand, tenor Luca Lombardo (Zarastra), with his reedy timbre and tight, bright top, may not be to everyone's taste. French Canadian baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe does a solid job as the calculating High Priest, Amrou. Laurent Campellone conducts the Choeur lyrique et Orchestre symphonique Saint-Etienne Loire in this historic first recording, a "must-have" mainly for Massenet fans.

Quite unlike Le mage, Therese is a compact two-act drama, with a small cast of three principals and chorus.. At just under 70 minutes, it makes for a short evening at the opera. But what a powerful one it proves, the closest Massenet came, along. with his La navarraise, to providing a French response to Italy's verismo movemen t (as exemplified by Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci).


Set in 1792/93 during the French Revolution, the opera is about a love triangle involving Therese, her husband, Andre Thorel, and her childhood sweet-heart, Armand de Clerval. As political unrest increases, Andre is arrested. Armand begs Therese to flee France with him, but she refuses to abandon her husband. When she hears an angry mob approaching, she looks down to see her husband in the tumbrel taking him to the guillotine. She defiantly screams "Vive le roil" as the menacing mob engulfs' her, sealing her own fate.

The opera was first documented in the 1970s on the Decca label with a splendid cast featuring Canadians Huguette Tourangeau as Therese and Louis Quilico as Andre, with Welsh tenor Ryland Davies as Armand. While I have a fondness for that recording, this new release is its equal. Indeed, tenor Charles Castronovo may have a slight edge over Davies. As Andre, the experienced Quilico has my vote over another French Canadian, Etienne Dupuis, and I prefer Tourangeau's distinctive timbre and dramatic involvement to that of French mezzo Nora Gubisch. Her husband, Main Altinoglu, conducts the Choeur et Orchestre Opera national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon in this fine performance.

Both of these Massenet releases come in handsome, hardcover books the size of a DVD case. Although there are few illustrations, the books include a number of essays as well as the complete French and English libretti. As this series is a. limited edition, each copy is numbered.--Neil Crory


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Title Annotation:Opera at home
Author:Crory, Neil
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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