Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ten French Operas

This is a response to the recent list in Opera News. My list will be limited to French operas I have seen performed which is a list of only about 33 operas.

Operas that stay in the repertoire:

  • Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila
  • Jacques Offenbach Les contes d'Hoffmann
  • Georges Bizet Carmen

All three of these operas are completely French and enormously popular. It is surprising that this particular list is so short. One of the reasons for their popularity is that two out of the three are mezzo-soprano vehicles, a rare commodity in any repertoire. For each of these three composers this is their only work in the running. I know many people love Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, but it just misses. These three operas are wonderful operas, full of beautiful music and marvelous theatrical situations.

Other completely French operas that drift in and out of standard repertoire:

  • Charles Gounod Roméo et Juliette
  • Charles Gounod Faust

Let’s discuss these for a while. In the early years of the twentieth century Roméo et Juliette was enormously popular and then faded. Until very recently Faust was a mainstay. Now in the twenty-first century the two are changing places. Roméo et Juliette is rising in popularity, while Faust is fading. True love is always popular, and the music of Gounod starts to sound refreshing after a century of modernism.

But we now begin to understand why the Germans always call Faust Marguerite, and why this is not at all the story Goethe was trying to tell. The familiar melodies begin to feel too familiar and the characters implausible. Marguerite is not a modern girl while Juliette is immortal. Both are great operas in the French tradition, but does Gounod rate two entries?

  • Jules Massenet Manon

Massenet is currently in ascendance, as at least in my own life are the French generally. I have seen a number of operas by Massenet, but Manon is his masterpiece. In the twenty-first century we are happier with a heroine who is capable of true love, but is easily distracted. The situations are delicious and the music adorable. I don’t really think he deserves more than one opera.

I think in previous eras it would have been Werther that appeared here as the Massenet opera. Werther is another great opera with a mezzo-soprano heroine, and should not be forgotten. Do we prefer someone who does what she is supposed to do over the bad girl?  I think the answer is no.

  • Hector Berlioz The Damnation of Faust

The great Frenchman deserves to be listed. He lacked a true understanding of the theater, cared nothing for continuity of plot, but still wrote some wonderful music. Les Troyens is too big and The Damnation of Faust too fragmented, but I have seen Faust staged twice now, and it almost works. At least he understands what the story is about, and there needs to be a great Faust opera in the repertoire.

  • Claude Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Now some people think this is the most boring opera ever written, and I used to be one of them. All that’s required is to see Frederica von Stade sing it, and your eyes will be opened. I’m sorry to say I do not find a film of this. There is a version with Natalie Dessay and her husband I should try. Perhaps a great French orchestra and conductor would also help. They do seem to have a better grasp of their own music.

  • Christoph Willibald Gluck Iphigénie en Tauride

Gluck is an Austrian who achieved his greatest success in Paris. Now we are mad for Iphigénie en Tauride, another French opera with a mezzo heroine, especially now that the fabulous Susan Graham is making the rounds with it. Unlike Damnation of Faust in which Susan also appeared, it is a genuine vehicle. I think I preferred Gluck's Alceste overall, especially in the theatrical viability category, but a great singer would need to grasp it and make a success of it.

  • Gioachino Rossini William Tell

The great Italian ended his operatic career in Paris by writing a grand opera with a big melodramatic orchestra. He hated it, but I don’t really think we do. I could see this opera more. In fact I think I could see more grand opera period.

  • Francis Poulenc Dialogues of the Carmelites

A modern opera needs to be included in this list. I love Poulenc, but I might have preferred:

  • György Ligeti Le Grand Macabre
  • Olivier Messiaen Saint-François d'Assise
There is a long list of great French operas, such as Mignon, another mezzo heroine, that I have never seen.  This isn’t exactly the same list but may be closer than I would have preferred.  Make your own list.

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