Jules Massenet's life
Jules Massenet was born in 1842 in France and was the son of an ironmaster.He entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 11, and then studied composition under the noted opera composer Ambroise Thomas. In 1863 he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata David Rizzio. In 1867 he started a career as a composer of operas and incidental music with the production of his opera La Grand’ Tante (The Great Aunt). Several of Massenet’s operas reflect the succession of contemporary operatic fashions. His 24 operas are characterized by a graceful, thoroughly French melodic style and Manon is considered by many to be his masterpiece. As a teacher of composition at the Paris Conservatoire from 1878, Massenet was highly influential. His music has always been admired for its lyricism, sensuality, occasional sentimentality, and theatrical aptness. Of Massenet’s incidental music, particularly notable is that for Leconte de Lisle’s play Les Érinnyes, which contains the widely performed song Élégie. In 1873 he also produced his oratorio, Marie-Magdeleine, later performed as an opera and composed more than 200 songs, a piano concerto, and several orchestral suites. Massenet died in Paris in 1912.
La Grand'Tante (1867), Don César de Bazan (1872), Le roi de Lahore (1877), Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884), Le Cid (1885), Werther (1886-1892), Esclarmonde (1889), Le mage (1891), Thaïs (1894), Le portrait de Manon (1894), La Navarraise (1894), Sapho (1897- 1909), Cendrillon (1899), Grisélidis (1901), Le Jongleur de Nôtre Dame (1902), Chérubin (1905), Ariane (1906), Therèse (1907), Bacchus (1909), Don Quichotte (1910), Roma (1912), Panurge (1913), Cleopatre (1914), Amadis (1922).
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Massenet could consider himself the most popular French composer of the time, with many successful operas already on stage, such as Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde and Werther. Massenet was at the peak of his career when he wrote Thaïs, and he engaged in a subject which Louis Gallet, the librettist, took from the novel of the same name by Anatole France. It unfolds the story of the conversion of a courtesan from Alexandria, in Egypt, led by a cenobitic monk, who pays a high price for the woman's sins by feeling such a deep fascination for her beauty to lose his own faith. Very exotic just as many of Massenet's previous operas, Thaïs is sunk in a atmosphere of contrast between sensuality and religious ecstasy and it is affected by the cultural climate of that time in France: mysterious and languid, rich in musical echoes close to Fauré and Debussy, which characterize the extreme modernity of his orchestral writing.
Chérubin by Jules Massenet, which debuted at Opéra of Montecarlo in 1905, is inspired by the character of Beaumarchais, made popular by Mozart and Da Ponte in Le Nozze di Figaro. Despite not being one of the most famous or more represented operas by the French musician, Chérubin is overall a very pleasant musical work, well made thanks to some sublime moments such as Nina's aria, the Ensolleillad-Chérubin and Chérubin-Nina duets and the magnificent and moving Aubade of the dancer during the finale. The opera seems to give off vibes of those years Belle Epoque, dusted off the luxury and mundane atmosphere of the close by Côte d'Azur. However, its story is feeble like a bubble which dissolves maliciously in the air. Chérubin is a soft divertissement, smoothly placed on its irresistible inconsistency, just like ephemeral love...
Massenet's Le roi de Lahore
Le roi de Lahore, a work by a young Massenet, first saw the light at Opéra of Paris in 1877. The composer started writing the musical sheet without even knowing if the opera was ever going to be shown, using part of the music he had already written for the unfinished La Coupe du roi de Thulé. After the director of the Opéra expressed his appreciation, Massenet was offered a large budget to realize its debut, which was greeted with great success and replayed many times. The opera was successful also in Italy, where it was shown the year after the debut in Paris, at Teatro Regio of Turin. It was also praised in many other European theatres but it disappeared from the repertoire during the Twentieth Century, until Joan Sutherland made it popular again, thanks to her interpretation of Sita and her husband’s direction, Richard Bonynge.
Manon, together with Werther, is one of the most successful opera by Massenet. It premiered at the Opèra-Comique of Paris on the 19th of January 1884 and it was welcomed by the public with large appraisal and re-shown so many times to win over the initial perplexities of the critics. The libretto by Henri Meilhac, written together with Philippe Gille, is different from the literature model the opera was inspired by, which is the novel written by abbott Antoine-François Prévost and called Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. This was a work from the Eighteenth Century which during the Romantic era would still shock the public and incite its desire to escape the bourgeois society, making it more attracted to this femme fatale with no sense of moral, who is able to ruin her lover's life and then gain redemption only through death. Compared to the literature model, in Massenet's opera Manon is an innocent and naïve girl destined to the convent, who feels attracted to luxury and to a mundane life as soon as a man seduces her by expressing his love for her. Massenet, who in a way prepares the society for the following French symbolistic era which will see Debussy and Ravel's music largely developing, represents the highest expression of the French musical naturalism, thanks to its refined melody, its drama power and the different styles.