On Jonas’ “L’Opéra,” and Massenet’s “Le Cid”

Poster of Massenet’s “Le Cid,” also featured in “L’Opéra”

I have been listening rather obsessively to Jonas’ most recent album of French repertoire, L’Opéra. (That is, when I’m not obsessively relistening to passages from Don Carlos!) One can see and sample, at the previous link, the arias included in this album, from Gounod to Massenet to Bizet, including a gorgeous “Au fond du temple saint” sung with Ludovic Tézier.

This album is more “up my alley,” as they say, than the recent Dolce Vita. (But hey, I would listen to Jonas sing the alphabet song, when it comes to that, so I am far from complaining!) L’Opéra is exquisitely sung and orchestrated, and the CD comes in a beautiful cover with a booklet of photos ~ including  some of the stunning Palais Garnier which comprises the outside and inside background of the CD cover ~ and the lyrics to each aria, both in English and French.

Jonas Kaufmann’s recent album of French repertoire, “L’Opéra”

Aside from the dazed and giddy feeling on hearing Jonas sing my name in #12 (“Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from La Juive, by Fromental Halévy), the real revelation of this beautiful album was, for me, first hearing the transcendent aria from Massenet’s Le Cid, “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père.” I am surprised that this aria has managed to escape me before. It was truly a revelation, and has sent me on a quest to get to know this opera. (Link above to Jonas singing it previous to the album.)

Here are the lyrics, in English, thanks to this link:

 

Ah! All is over, finished!
My beautiful dream of glory,
my dreams of happiness,
have flown away forever!

You take away my love,
you take away my victory,
Lord, I submit myself to you!
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father,
always veiled, (but) always present,
I loved you when times were good (prosperous)
And I praise you on somber days
I go where your law leads me,
free of human regrets.
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father,
your image alone for my soul is
where I submit into your hands.

Oh Heaven above, so blue, so bright…
spirits from above, looked at me,
although this soldier may be in despair,
but his Christian faith remains.
You may come, you may appear to me,
at the dawn of the eternal day.
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father!
As the servant of a just Lord,
I will respond to your call without fear,
Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father!

It is too bad, in a way, that recordings of the aria in concert don’t tend to include the brief interlude of the chorus of heavenly voices, including that of St. James, as it does in the opera. It of course makes sense…but still, it is so beautiful that I wish it could be included in every version.

A few notes on the opera: Massenet’s 4-act opera premiered in Paris in 1885, based on the Pierre Corneille play, with libretto by Louis Gallet, Adolphe d’Ennery and Edouard Blau. The story is one of honor and duty, versus love; of interpersonal and familial struggles within the politics of 11th century Spain. Rodrigue, a valiant warrior who is later nicknamed “le Cid” (“the Lord”), is knighted by the King in Act I, and Rodrigue’s hoped-for marriage to his beloved Chimène is approved. But in addition to these honors, Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, is made the protector of the King’s daughter. This act is felt, by the Conte de Gormas (Chimène’s father), to be a deliberate snub to himself. Gormas proceeds to insult Don Diègue, compromising the latter’s honor. In order to regain it, Don Diègue begs his son to challenge Gormas. Rodrigue knows that such an act would estrange him from his beloved Chimène forever; yet, honor bids him fight. Ironically, as my mom has pointed out about the original Corneille play, the very thing that Chimène loves about Rodrigue is his honor; thus, it is a catch-22. I won’t spoil the rest, except to say that the exquisite aria comes in the midst of what Rodrigue believes will be his final battle for the glory of Spain, as he and his army appear to be defeated, or nearly so.

I loved this opera, and want to continue to get better acquainted with it. Along with the stunning Act III aria ~ a fulfillment of earlier set-up in Rodrigue’s vision of, and dedication to, Saint James of Compostella ~ I also particularly loved the Act I knighting scene, and the ceremonial chorus of bells and voices that precedes and follows it.

Unfortunately, there is no recording, CD nor DVD nor elsewhere, of our tenor singing the title role. So, I looked elsewhere, and found a broadcast which, at the time of this writing, is available on YouTube, from the Washington Opera, with Placido Domingo and Elisabete Matos. I chose this recording first because of the obliging English subtitles. It was a lovely production with spectacular costumes and staging, even if the video quality looks like a VHS recording of a TV broadcast, which might well be the case. It’s a treasure.

My second experience of the opera was also thanks to YouTube. It is from l’Opéra de Marseille, 2011, with Roberto Alagna in the lead and it still can be found at this link at the time of this post. I waited on this production, as it doesn’t have the English subtitles, but once I had the gist of the story I was happy to follow along without them.

Roberto Alagna as “Le Cid”

I loved the costumes in this one, and the casting overall. Béatrice Uria-Monzon was a fantastic Chimène. It took me a bit to warm up to her, but I ended up loving both her voice and overall portrayal. She is strong and fierce, without losing a certain emotional vulnerability which is crucial. I felt the chemistry between the two leads, especially in their big scene together before the battle. As to Roberto, he not only has a beautiful voice especially for French repertoire, but there is something about him that makes our hearts go out to him; he is eminently watchable and lovable.

Rodrigue and Chimène, “Le Cid”

His visible distress, his hopeless courage, give one the irrational wish to take him into one’s arms and reassure him. One hears it in his voice: the earnest, distressed appeal. It is irresistible and I was behind him completely. It is this quality that makes Roberto so compelling in the earnest, noble, and self-sacrificing roles. It is what makes him such a lovely Don Carlos, particularly in the French, and a heartbreaking Cyrano de Bergerac.

I must also put a link here to Roberto’s irresistible “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père” which had me in tears…

What is it about the French repertoire that is so compelling at this time? From the French Don Carlos, to the French version of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, to Le Cid and L’Opéra…it seems to be a recurring theme at the moment. All I can say is that it is a beauty that has come rather unlooked for, and I’m thirsting for more.

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Thoughts on Cyrano de Bergerac, Opéra National de Montpellier, 2003

“I carry my adornments on my soul…
a soul clothed in shining armor, hung
With deeds for decorations, twirling – thus –
A bristling wit, and swinging at my side
Courage, and on the stones of this old town
Making the sharp truth ring, like golden spurs!”

~ Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac

For my first opera experience of Cyrano, thanks to my friend Judith’s recommendation, I started out with the lovely 2003 production from the Opéra National de Montpellier, with Roberto Alagna in the title role. And I’m so glad I did. (As of the time of this posting, it can still be viewed at this link, complete with English subtitles!)

Cyrano de Bergerac, based on the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand, was composed by Franco Alfano with a libretto by Henri Cain initially written in French, although it premiered in Italian in 1936. Several adaptations, it would seem, have been composed based on Rostand’s classic tale, and it’s understandable…Cyrano is, of course, one of the iconic, heartbreaking love stories.

A man who risks his life to write and deliver daily missives to his beloved, and getting no credit for it? ...sigh...
A man who risks his life to write and deliver daily missives to his beloved, and getting no credit for it? …sigh…

The title character is a great-souled, intelligent, and indomitably brave poet-fighter in 17th century France, whose only real “weakness” is what he considers to be a deformity—an extremely large nose—whose “ugliness” Cyrano feels will disqualify him in any contest at love. He jokes about this “deformity” better than anyone—but will just as soon challenge anyone to a duel on account of it. To paraphrase Charlie Chaplin who said that life is a comedy in long-shot and a tragedy up close, Cyrano is the ultimate tragi-comic hero.

In Act II, Cyrano comes to realize that the woman he harbored a secret love for, Roxane—who sees him only in the light of friendship—confesses that she loves a new member of Cyrano’s regiment, Christian—though she hardly knows him—and begs Cyrano that he protect him. True to an unexpected, yet perfect, recipe for heartbreak in the story (but eternal love from all who will encounter Cyrano on the page or stage forever after), he not only looks out for Christian, but helps his bluff and unimaginative rival-friend to woo Roxane, by writing letters to her in Christian’s name, even risking his life to make sure they are delivered across enemy lines on the battlefield. And all this, while letting another have the credit for his eloquence. (What’s not to love?) The irony is, the man Roxane ultimately really falls in love with is the man whose soul is so tender and whose words are so intoxicating.

Alfano’s opera does justice to to this great tale—part comedy, part adventure, part poetic tragedy—even if we can’t help but yearn for a Puccini interpretation in our heart of hearts. At least, I did. (And actually, Alfano is, I just learned—thank you, Blake!–perhaps best known for completing Puccini’s unfinished Turandot.)

This 2003 production from the Opéra National de Montpellier is a beautifully designed production, and the costumes are lush. The highlight for me was Roberto Alagna’s Cyrano, which is sensitive, heart-breaking, and full of Cyrano’s characteristically lovable bravado—and of course, his panache. My admiration for Alagna deepened with this performance…he really is exquisite in the French language roles! (And just like filmed or staged versions of A Tale of Two Cities, in which anyone who can play Sydney Carton well is pretty much “Beatified” in my book on the spot 😉 , the same might be said for any good Cyrano!)

Nathalie Manfrino is a lovely Roxane, and Richard Troxell is a very winning Christian—both vocally and in terms of acting: he compels the viewer to bestow at least a little bit of the sadness and empathy we feel for Cyrano’s situation, on him as well. Really, one cannot help but feel sorry for the slightly boorish fellow as he discovers, gradually and believably, to whom Roxane’s heart is really given—little does she herself imagine it. Nicolas Revenq is also very enjoyable as De Guiche. (Why is it that so many antagonists—in this case, he isn’t really an “antagonist”–or at least questionable gentlemen, have some variant of the name “Guy” or “Gui” or “Guillaume”? In this case, “De Guiche”! 😉 It has long been a joke in my family.)

Cyrano de BergeracThree specific scenes or moments I want to mention, besides of course the entrance of Cyrano, with his dashingly poetic swordplay: 1.) The wooing scene under the balcony, where Cyrano, under cover of darkness, tries to win back Roxane’s affection for Christian, which is poignant and heartbreaking on so many levels, and so well performed by all three. 2.) The beautiful Gascony song played by the shepherd to bring comfort to the soldiers at Cyrano’s encouragement. 3.) The finale.

All I can recommend is to have a box of tissues handy for the closing scene in the cloister garden.