Cléopâtre – Jules Massenet’s last opera score

4 MAY 2012

published in: Whitsun

Jules Massenet, Photo: Gaspard-Félix Tournachon
After the overwhelming success of his opera Thaïs (Paris, Opéra 1894), whose new form of libretto was discussed in detail in the press, the epoch of Massenet’s late œuvre gradually began. In the following years the composer experimented with the subjects of fairy-tales (Cendrillon, Paris, Opéra-Comique, 1899; Grisélidis, Paris, Opéra-Comique, 1901), with subjects from classical mythology based on libretti by Catulle Mendès (Ariane, Paris, Opéra 1906; Bacchus, Paris, Opéra, 1909) and he also borrowed from the dramatic concept of Italian verismo (La Navarraise, London, Covent Garden, 1894; Thérèse, Monte Carlo, 1907).

While from the turn of the century the Paris Opéra found itself in an institutional crisis, which prompted many opera composers of the younger generation to have their works premiered at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the first performance of Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (Monte Carlo 1902) led to Massenet’s cooperation with the principality of Monaco. Under its long-term artistic director, the composer and impresario Raoul Gunsbourg (1859–1955), who was in office from 1893 to 1951 (!) the opera house gradually assumed the status of a centre of European opera culture. Massenet had a close personal relationship with the ruling prince of Monaco, Prince Albert I (1848–1922), which was expressed not least in the fact that two of the three posthumous world premieres of operas by Massenet, Cléopâtre (Monte Carlo, 1914) and Amadis (Monte Carlo, 1922) took place on the Côte d’Azur. After the great success of the opera Don Quichotte with its subject from world literature (Monte Carlo, 1910) composed for Fyodor Chaliapin, Massenet again turned to historic material from classical antiquity. While he was still composing the opera Roma (Monte Carlo, 24 April 1912) to a libretto by Henri Cain, the rehearsals for which in Monte Carlo in the spring of 1912 took place parallel to work on the score of Cléopâtre, Massenet appears to have asked Henri Cain for a second libretto on a classical subject which was then written by Louis Payen.

Massenet’s last opera score
According to currently accessible sources, Massenet worked on Cléopâtre from autumn 1911 until the early summer of 1912 but this period was overshadowed by Massenet’s serious cancer illness which led to his death on 13 August 1912.

During the last years of his life the intense relationship with the mezzo-soprano Lucy Arbell (Georgette Wallace, 1882–1947) who had sung principal roles in the first performances of Ariane (Perséphone), Thérèse (title role), Bacchus (la Reine Amahelly), Don Quichotte (Dulcinée) and Roma (Posthumia), resulted in the role of Cléopâtre being tailor-made for her voice. Massenet, probably the composer of the 19th century who knew best how to compose for the female voice, had in the course of his long career frequently composed a main role to suit the characteristic qualities of a certain singer.

The choice of a deep female voice for the role of the protagonist – in the traditional role hierarchy of the 19th century an unconventional decision by Massenet – enabled the composer to illustrate the inner coordinates of the action already in the constellation of the solo role. The voices of mezzo-soprano and baritone, Cléopâtre and Marc-Antoine, wonderfully in the frequent love duets of the two protagonists.

Massenet was wisely reserved in his portrayal of Roman local colour and in particular provided only a summary musical account of the political aspects of the Roman Empire. On the other hand his imagination was inspired in depicting the locations of Egyptian decadence, especially when these were coupled with cruelty, obviously one of Cléopâtre’s psychological characteristics. Already at the beginning of the act the bodies of two slaves enrich the scene, but a veritable orgy of violence follows when Cléopâtre kills Spakos, Marc-Antoine commits suicide and then follows the portrayal on stage of how Cléopâtre’s life is extinguished by the effect of the snake poison. Here the music reaches some of its most impressive moments in the entire score. In complete contrast to the several hundred-years-long tradition of the portrayal of Cleopatra in teichoscopy, Massenet’s opera emphasised the dying scene in his dramatic concept – seemingly as if not only Cléopâtre were taking leave of the world but also as if the traditional portrayal of the action in grand opéra were celebrating its demise with a dignified farewell scene.

(Abstract of the text for the playbill from Jürgen Maehder)

There are still some remaining tickets for the concertante performance of Cléopâtre on May 27, 2012.