This disc is one of four Australian vocal CDs newly
released in the UK via DI Music.
Jules Massenet lived when the main opera scene
was reasonably firmly fixed on the style of Verdi and only those who
composed in the Italian image were likely to be taken seriously. The
Germans, with their love for Wagner, regarded his music as trifling,
not to be taken seriously and certainly not art. The Viennese, after
hearing his Manon performed by the Court Opera, applauded his
art and even asked for a sequel to be written.
On this disc examples are selected from a number of
his operas and oratorios. To many Massenet did not fit the mould and
was overshadowed by Debussy and Ravel. He enjoyed some success and,
like Gounod, he re-established a natively French style that no other
composer since Rameau had managed to do. One can judge for oneself how
one would categorise his operatic compositions.
The aria tracks are taken from the oratorios and operas
in chronological order.
Massenet’s writing contains a wealth of orchestral
colour and melody, but the vocalist generally sings in the style of
a recitative and any melody line is invariably absent. There is a belief
that his setting of the French language has not been surpassed - which
is understandable. The arias tend to drift, dreamlike, with a Puccini
quality to some of them. But certainly there is little which is memorable
about them. Of the four Melba discs in the series, this one is the least
successful. The arias may seem perfectly in place within the compass
of a full opera, but to take short extracts for a 75 minute CD (19 tracks)
with one singer providing the vocal element, however good she is, is
bound to produce monotony. While a few of the arias do offer variety
the majority are similar and don’t work.
Rosamund Illing has a reputation as a fine and versatile
singer and she doesn’t disappoint in her singing of Massenet. Maybe
there could be more variation in dynamics and characterisation in some
of the arias, but really the fault lies with Massenet, not Illing.
Richard Bonynge needs no introduction: he conducts
with panache and the orchestra does full justice to the rich scores.
The recording is excellent and the booklet contains
all lyrics clearly set out in German, English, and French. Rodney Milnes’
notes on Massenet are detailed and promote the composer with considerable
strength. An interesting study on Massenet by Graham Johnson is also
included and, as he rightly says, every composer has his place and one
day may be re-evaluated. If Debussy wrote that ‘the working classes
hummed Massenet’s tunes on their way to work’ I find little evidence
of 'hummability' in his arias and he must have been referring to some
quite different compositions. This is another well produced first class
recording from Melba.
The other three Melba discs are— Songs of Richard Strauss, The
Power of Love (Balfe/Wallace/Sullivan), The
Floral Dance [favourite songs (1860-1930) of Peter Dawson]