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Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Amoureuse – Sacred and Profane Arias
1. Sainte Thérèse Prie(1902) [3:29]
2. Amoreuse (1898) [3:06]
La Grand Tante (1867)
3. Je vais bientôt quitter [2:46]
Marie Magdeleine (1873)
4. O mes soeurs [4:43]
Eve (1875)
5. O nuit [2:57]
La Vierge (1880)
6. O mon fils [5:10]
7. Rêve infini! [5:08]
Hérodiade (1881)
8. Il est doux, il est bon [4:53]
Le Cid (1885)
9. Plus de tourments [3:03]
10. Pleurez mes yeux [5:00]
Sapho (1897)
11. Ce que j’appelle beau [2:33]
12. Ah, vous avez parlé [3:07]
13. Demain, je partirai [5:56]
14. Vais-je rester ici? [4:02]
Griséldis (1901)
15. Loÿs! Loÿs! [3:51]
Chérubin (1905)
16. Vous parlez de peril [1:54]
Ariane (1906)
17. Avec tes compangnes guerrières [3:18]
18. Je comprends … un heros! Un roi [4:32]
19. Ils mentaient! A quoi bon [6:05]
Rosamund Illing (soprano)
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. November 1998, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Sydney
MELBA MR301106 [75:41]

Today we regard Massenet as an opera composer but he wrote about 200 songs and his earliest successes were with oratorios. On this disc we are treated to examples of all three genres, and rarities they are, almost all of them. We also recognize Massenet’s fingerprints: a melodious proclivity, sweet harmonies, skilful orchestration and a kind of perfumed atmosphere. Taken in large doses this can be claustrophobic – too much of a good thing. Not even reviewers need to sit through a five-quarter-hour-long recital such as this without a couple of breaks. However there is enough variation and even though most numbers are sweet and slow there are some thrilling dramatic outbreaks to liven things up. There is also a natural ebb and flow that keeps the music alive and with singing of the calibre of Rosamund Illing’s one can just lean back and savour one delicacy after another. Hers is a more or less ideal voice for this repertoire: clear, beautiful, flexible and warm and she never becomes over-sweet; there is a healthy freshness in her voice. Richard Bonynge, who has championed so much lesser-known music for almost half a century, is an ideal conductor for such an enterprise.
The disc opens with two songs for voice and piano, one religious, the other anything but. Here they are performed in the composer’s own unpublished orchestrations. They are beautiful – and sweet. Then follows an aria from Massenet’s first foray into the world of opera, an opéra comique in one act. It saw seventeen performances and the title role was sung by a seventeen-year-old Marie Heilbron, who at double that age was Massenet’s first Manon. It is a light and rather anonymous piece.
From his sacred oeuvre we are treated to arias from three works: the oratorio Marie Magdeleine, which was Massenet’s first great success; the mystère Eve, which starts after Adam’s rib-operation; and the légende sacrée La Vierge. Beautiful music all of it, especially Mary’s simple entrance aria from Marie Magdeleine, sensitively sung.
The subject for Hérodiade was taken from a story by Flaubert. As opposed to Oscar Wilde’s and Richard Strauss’s vicious Salome, Massenet’s character is an innocent young girl in love with John the Baptist. When she learns of the death of John she stabs herself. Il est doux, il est bon, sa parole est sereine, she sings at the beginning of her entrance aria (He is gentle, he is good, his speech is serene), and that is also a fair description of the aria.
Rosamund Illing is appropriately girlish in L’Infante’s happy song from Le Cid, while Chimène’s Pleurez mes yeux, with its clarinet obbligato, is full of sorrow. Sapho was a ‘sung play’ based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet. An artists’ model ‘with a past’, Fanny Legrand, starts a love affair with a much younger man. ‘Friends’ inform him about her earlier life and he leaves her but later he returns. Fanny however realises that it can’t last and in the last scene she sneaks away since he has fallen asleep. Emma Calvé, a legendary Carmen and famous for her histrionic skills, was Fanny Legrand and in the second excerpt here (tr. 12), where she is furious at the ‘friends’ after having revealed her past, she probably had a field day. So does Rosamund Illing, who characterises well, shouting and snarling Canailles! (Villains!) at the end. The remaining two songs from Sapho are sad. In the beginning of the last act, entitled “Solitude”, Fanny sings about her lost love. There is an orchestral introduction with a beautiful but sombre cello melody and the aria is expressive, catching the heroine’s subdued despair. It is sung with touching eloquence, as is Fanny’s farewell to her young lover.
I am not sure whether it was due to this reviewer’s fatigue or the fact that Massenet’s inspiration ran dry towards the end of his life, but apart from the heart-rending aria from Griseldis the rest of the recital felt a little matter-of-fact. This doesn’t diminish the overall appeal of the disc; Massenet’s by-ways are well worth exploring, especially in such committed and well-sung readings. The recording, originally made in 1998, has been re-mastered and surround sound mixed, giving a very full but rather over-resonant effect. I actually preferred listening in traditional two-channel mode.
Production values are high, as always with Melba issues. Rodney Milnes’ essay is a good read, Graham Johnson provides an appreciation on Massenet,  entitled “The Master of Charms”, full texts and translations are included with annotations to each number by Maestro Bonynge, often giving details about premiere singers.
For a broader picture of Massenet’s creativity this disc has a lot to offer and Rosamund Illing sings everything admirably.
Göran Forsling


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