Épisode lyrique in 2 acts
Libretto: Jules Claretie & Henri Cain, after Claretie’s short story La Cigarette (1890).
First performance: Covent Garden, London, 20 June 1894, conducted by Sir Augustus Harris
First performance in France: Bordeaux, 27 March 1895.
First performance in Paris: Opéra-Comique (Salle du Châtelet), 3 October 1895, conducted by Philippe Flon.
Parts of this post are adapted from my survey of Massenet’s operas, “Jules Massenet – His Life and Works”, MusicWeb International, 2016.
Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) had rapidly become popular throughout Europe, and established verismo as the latest trend in opera. The chameleonic Massenet seized on the style’s violent passions, working-class characters, and naturalism, and produced a little masterpiece.
La Navarraise is like a super-concentrated essence of opera; it lasts barely 40 minutes, but runs the gamut of emotions, has a great role for a soprano, and ends on a devastating curtain.
The opera was a vehicle for Emma Calvé, the great acting singer who sang Santuzza at its first performances in Florence and Paris, and who made Bizet’s Carmen popular in France. Like those two roles, Anita, the Navarrese, is a complex character; she is a loving, devout woman who commits a murder, and goes mad over her lover’s corpse.
The opera is set in Spain at the time of the Carlist War (1874); Anita is in love with a soldier, Araquil, but his father, Remigio, won’t let his son marry a nobody. Anita kills the enemy commander to get enough money for a dowry. Things go badly. Araquil has followed Anita to the enemy camp; he thinks she has sold her body, and dies, cursing her. The curtain falls as Anita breaks into hysterical laughter and collapses.
Louis Schneider (Massenet, 1908) called the final scene “one of the most terrible
moments in dramatic art; a totally realistic emotional moment, but which overwhelms the least susceptible audience member”. Anita’s madness “hardly lasts a few seconds, and yet it is interminable, such is the great intensity of the scene. When the curtain falls, one feels a true sense of relief.”
Like most of Massenet’s operas, La Navarraise is through-composed; there aren’t any “numbers” per se, but arias (Anita’s plea to Remigio; Araquil’s tender “O bien-aimée!”) and trios arise naturally out of the situation.
There’s also opportunity for traditional genre pieces, such as the soldiers’ drinking songs.
The opera’s directness and dramatic intensity impressed audiences. “The plot,
which the music follows step by step,” wrote Arthur Pougin, “is fast, one might almost say as brutal as lightning; it strikes with a singular dramatic power; it is, as they say, ‘a love drama which is born, grows, and dies between two skirmishes’.”
Thirty years after its first performance, Antoine Banès, Adminstrateur de la Bibliothèque, des Archives et du Musée de l’Opéra (le Correspondant, 25 Sept. 1923), called it a work of incomparable mastery. “There is not a useless harmony, nor any padding. Emotions clatter as rapidly as swords. This is a wonderful art.”
Geneviève Moizan (Anita), Alain Vanzo (Araquil), Jacques Mars (Garrido), Lucien Lovano (Remigio), and Marcel Vigneron (Bustamente), with the orchestra of the Radio Television Française conducted by Jean-Claude Hartemann. Paris, 1963.
The best recording, with an all-Francophone cast.
Also recommended: Lucia Popp, Alain Vanzo, Vincenzo Sardinero, Gérard Souzay, Claude Méloni, and Michel Sénéchal, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antonio de Almeida. Columbia M-33506, CBS 76403 and CBS “Masterworks” DC 40134, recorded London 1975.