Opéra in 3 or 4 acts
Libretto: Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont (Georges Hartmann), after Gustave Flaubert’s “Hérodias”
First performed: Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, 19 December 1881, in original version of 3 acts and 6 scenes
Reception: A success! Hundreds of Parisian artists, journalists and music-lovers headed north to Brussels for the première. The Parisian critics, the Brussels press and the foreign journals, Massenet’s early biographer Schneider wrote, consecrated dithyrambic article to Massenet and his music. Yet the work was not performed in Paris in French until 1903.
First performed in Paris: Théâtre Italien, 1 February 1884 (in Italian)
For the dossier (roles, set designs, musical structure), see here.
Massenet’s opera is a hothouse of Middle Eastern exoticism, eroticism and religious fervor. It deals with the conflict between earthly and profane love, a theme Massenet would return to throughout the late nineteenth century.
Like Strauss’s Salome, Massenet’s tale concerns the relationship between John the Baptist, the Jewish maiden Salome, Herod Antipas her uncle, and Salome’s mother Herodias, Herod’s second wife and former sister-in-law. Massenet’s opera lacks the hysterical nastiness of Strauss’s early masterpiece, the sense, as Strauss’s father put it, that insects were crawling about inside his clothes.
Massenet’s version is in the line of French grand opera: a four act historical costume drama, mixing private passions, public scenes and spectacle.
His Salome is a sweet innocent, almost a flower child of the ’60s sitting at the feet of her guru, not Strauss’s feral princess who does a striptease for her stepfather and makes love to the severed head of John the Baptist on a silver charger.
Tamer than Salome, Massenet’s opera was almost as shocking as Strauss’s. Here were Biblical characters, among them Christ’s precursor, in love with Salomé! Cardinal Caverot, Archbishop of Lyon, excommunicated Massenet and his librettists; scandal was always good publicity.
Massenet, in only his second mature composition, shows the imagination and sensitivity to text that would make him the greatest French-born opera composer of the nineteenth century. For all its musical riches, however, the opera is not one of Massenet’s best. Contemporary critics suggested that he needed better librettists, one with more idea of how to structure an opera. The action is diffuse. What, after all, is the story of the opera?
His other grand opéras – Le roi de Lahore (1877), set in mediaeval India; Le Cid (1885), based on Corneille’s tragedy of Spanish chivalry; and Le mage (1891), a fanciful retelling of the founding of Zoroastrianism – set up the drama in the first act. Le Cid, for instance, is about the conflict between love and duty; the hero must kill his sweetheart’s father, to avenge an insult to his father.
Halfway through Act II, little has happened. Hérodiade offers several reflective arias that tell the audience how the characters feel: Salomé loves Jean (“Il est doux, il est bon”), Hérode lusts after Salomé (“Vision fugitive”), and Hérodiade is jealous of Salomé, fears that Hérode will abandon her, and wants Jean dead (“Venge-moi, ne me refuse pas”).
What’s missing is a narrative thread. Part of the problem is that the relationships have changed; Hérodiade abandoned her daughter to marry Hérode, and Hérodiade and Salomé do not recognize each other as mother and daughter until the very end of the opera—whereupon Salomé stabs herself. The finale is unconvincingly abrupt, inadequately prepared for, and the two women’s relationship is underdeveloped.
The only video recording doesn’t help.
It treats the opera as a vehicle for voices. Superb voices – Montserrat Caballé as Salomé and José Carreras as Jean. As music theatre, it’s in the worst, old-fashioned approach. The singers stand on the spot, and, without making eye contact, deliver their lines into the audience. Occasionally they raise an arm.
It doesn’t suit French opera at all. French opera should be riveting drama; it was meant to be theatrically immediate as well as musically beautiful or powerful. Critics judged libretti on their literary merits, as if they were plays, and singers were expected to act as well as sing. Massenet, with his concern for naturalism, intimacy and theatrical effect, would have been dismayed.
The production also turns Jean and Salomé into conventional lovers, as if they’re Lucia and Edgardo. Salomé, as someone said, loves Jean; Jean loves God. The duet at the end of Act I makes this clear. Jean tries to teach Salomé about God, but she has eyes only for him. His love is divine, hers is mortal.
[ Ah ! je t’écoute ! je t’adore ! (Ah, I hear you ! I adore you!)
[ L’éclat de tes yeux, (The brilliance of your eyes)
[ Plus resplendissant que l’aurore, (More glorious than the dawn)
[ Illumine les cieux ! (Illuminates the heavens !)
[ Je t’écoute, je t’adore ! (I hear you ! I adore you !)
[ Je t’aime, je t’adore ! (I love you ! I adore you !)
[ Je t’appartiens ! (I belong to you !)
[ JEAN (chanté en même temps) (singing at the same time)
[ Enfant, c’est la foi nouvelle et la vie ! (Child, it is the new faith and life !)
[ C’est la foi nouvelle et l’immortalité ! (It is the new faith and immortality !)
[ Regarde cette aurore ! (Look at that dawn !)
[ Regarde cette aurore ! (Look at that dawn !)
[ Ô vérité ! (O truth !)
(Jean se délivre des bras de Salomé qui tombe à genoux, extasiée ; il s’éloigne en lui montrant le ciel.)
(Jean extricates himself from Salomé’s arms ; she falls to her knees, in ecstasy ; he moves away, showing her the sky.)
In the Barcelona production, the lovers embrace at the end of Act I. They’re in the same pose at the end of Act II, looking into each other’s eyes. Hérode isn’t, and he should be. The directions are clear: “The Canaanites surround Jean. Hérodiade and Vitellius enter the palace. Phanuel leads Herod away, who cannot tear his eyes away from Salomé.” The implication is that Hérode is so obsessed by Salomé that he is blind to the political situation. Hérode follows Vitellius and Hérodiade into the palace. A character detail has been fumbled.
The recommended CD is Michel Plasson’s 1995 Toulouse recording, featuring Cheryl Studer, Nadine Denize, Ben Heppner, Thomas Hampson and José van Dam. Georges Prêtre’s 1963 recording has a largely Francophone cast — Régine Crespin, Rita Gorr, Albert Lance, Michel Dens and Jacques Mars — but offers highlights rather than the complete work.