He’s been called the French Puccini, wrote two enduringly popular operas, and was the first man to use a saxophone in the opera house. And yet the 100th anniversary of the death of composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912) isn’t attracting much attention. A centenary usually leads to a flood of performances, but except for his two standard repertoire pieces—the romantic tragedy Manon and the star tenor vehicle Werther—Massenet’s 34 operas have had a lack of revivals. In France, critic Nicolas Blanmont complained that the Paris Opera did nothing to celebrate the event except “yet another Manon.” Beyond that, there isn’t much investigation of the man who used to be one of the wealthiest and most popular opera composers. William Shookhoff, a Canadian conductor and accompanist, says that when he participated in a rare Massenet opera last year, “The comment I heard repeatedly was, ‘Why don’t we hear this work more often?’ ”
Not that Massenet is forgotten. Opera singers revive his work because they find his music fun to sing. Unlike a Puccini opera, which requires most to scream at the top of their lungs, Massenet wrote delicately scored arias that show off a voice to its best advantage. Shookhoff says that “his orchestrations are always supportive of the singers,” and Bruno Laplante, a Canadian baritone who has released several albums of rare Massenet songs, says, “It’s a music that sings well, that is very vocal, that possesses a lot of charm.”
Because his operas are so singer-friendly, many of today’s major stars have had a Massenet opera produced for them, to show off their voices. Renée Fleming, one of the biggest star sopranos, has performed and recorded operas like Thaïs, about an ancient prostitute with a heart of gold, and Hérodiade, where Salome becomes a pure girl with a crush on John the Baptist. The famous Belgian bass José Van Dam chose Massenet’s version of Don Quixote (with a tear-jerking 10-minute death scene) for his farewell performance, which is being issued as a DVD this year.
But when there’s not a singer around to insist on a Massenet performance, opera producers may be reluctant to try out some of his works. In his own time, Massenet was accused of crass commercialism, and his operas are always willing to do whatever they can to please a middlebrow audience, with lots of religion, noble self-sacrifice, and crowd-pleasing dances. Laplante says Massenet is a great composer because his operas “express simple sentiments applicable to everyone,” but that kind of direct, unsophisticated expression has made his work unpopular with directors and producers who want to purge opera of escapism and sentimentality.
The blog Opera Cake, one of the leading voices for politically progressive opera productions, wrote that opera producers are too quick see Massenet and other 19th-century French composers as “religiously exclusive, socially conservative and self-righteous.” That idea seemed to be confirmed by Gerard Mortier, the French impresario who made the Paris opera a home for modernistic productions; he told Le Figaro that he “detests” Werther and only revived it “at the request” of stars like tenor Rolando Villazón. In an operatic culture moving away from stars and middle-class audiences, all but a few Massenet operas may be in trouble.
But semi-professionals may pick up the slack when it comes to exhuming Massenet’s lesser-known works. Last month the Paris National Opera’s Atelier Lyrique, a student workshop, presented arias from rare Massenet operas including Griséilidis, where we learn that the Devil can’t tempt a good Frenchwoman into adultery. And the Toronto group Essential Opera, founded by sopranos Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt, recently mounted a concert of Chérubin, Massenet’s unauthorized sequel to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Bardua says that Massenet “always gives you the perfect motivation in the music. You never have to ask, ‘What am I feeling here?’ because he always gives you the gift of a beautifully timed musical change that illustrates the character.” Batt puts it more simply. “Massenet’s writing,” she says, “was a gift for my throat.”