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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Hérodiade (1881) [165:14]
John the Baptist - Gilbert Py
Herod - Brian Schexnayder
Hérodiade - Grace Bumbry
Salomé - Leona Mitchell
Phanuel - Roderick Kennedy
Vitellius - Frédéric Vassar
High Priest - Jacques Mars
A Voice - Martin Shopland
Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeur de l’Opéra de Nice
Choeur de l’Académie de l’Université de Belgrade/Georges Prêtre
rec. 21 June 1987, Opéra, Nice
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salomé (1905) [58:19]
Salomé - Cynthia Makris
Hérode - Gilbert Py
Hérodias - Nadine Denise
Jokanaan - Monte Pederson
Premier Soldat - Daniel Ottevaere
Les Juifs - Guy Gabella; Frédéric Plantak; Antoine Normand; Jean Dourmène
Premier Nazaréen - Frédéric Vassar
Deuxième Nazaréen - Jean-Paul Boyt
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Théodor Guschlbauer
rec. 28 July 1988, Montpellier
GALA GL100.631 [3CDs: 75.14 + 70:51 + 77:58]

This generously filled and well presented 3CD set links Massenet’s little known opera with Strauss’s much better known work on the same Biblical story of Salome and John the Baptist. Taken from live performances in southern France towards the end of the 1980s, a few cast members are shared, but the productions are not otherwise linked.
Massenet is a splendid composer who nowadays is somewhat neglected on the international stage. As a young man he gained experience as a percussionist in the Paris Opéra orchestra, and at the Conservatoire he won the coveted Prix de Rome composition prize in 1863. His position as an operatic composer in the French capital was cemented somewhat later, in 1877, with the fashionably oriental opera Le Roi de Lahore. Hérodiade followed four years later, but was first performed at Brussels, not Paris. The literary source was a version of the story by Gustave Flaubert. Originally the opera was written in Italian for the famous publisher Ricordi, who planned to produce it at La Scala, Milan, but this project did not materialise. It found phenomenal success in a French translation at Brussels, with more than fifty performances following its December 1881 premiere. The opera was performed at Paris soon after, in 1884, but sung in Italian because of the easy availability of the Ricordi vocal scores. After that, Hérodiade was soon staged throughout Europe, and as far afield as Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Cairo.
Massenet tells the Salome story in a different way from that of the better known opera by Strauss. Of course it pre-dates the latter by a quarter of a century, but it is also worth remembering that the Massenet-Flaubert version pre-dates the play (written in French) by Oscar Wilde, whose German translation was Strauss’s source of reference. In Massenet’s version the prophet John the Baptist admits his love for Salomé and is executed by the jealous Hérode, after which she stabs herself. If some Wagnerian influence is evident in the employment of leitmotifs and sometimes heavy orchestration, Massenet remained true to his own style also, particularly in his portrayal of his sweetly sensitive women. This applies to both Salomé and her mother Hérodiade, who gains a higher profile here than in Strauss (and Wilde). Massenet’s musical manner inspired the composer Vincent d’Indy to refer to the score’s ‘discreet and pseudo-religious eroticism’, to which Massenet responded: ‘I don’t believe in all this creeping Jesus stuff. However, the public likes it and we must always agree with the public.’
What of the opera today, and of this recorded performance? First and foremost, it is fluent in both music and drama, always leading the listener through convincing lines of ebb and flow, and therefore justifying its scale across four full acts. These strengths are also true of this performance, so ably conducted by Georges Prêtre, an experienced hand in French repertoire. Every tempo feels just right, and there is consequently a real sense of occasion in the theatre. The singing finds an acceptable standard and sometimes a good deal more than that, most notably from the two women, Leona Mitchell as Salomé and Grace Bumbry as Hérodiade. Both seem to be ‘inside’ their roles, in terms of characterisation as well as technique. Likewise Gilbert Py and Brian Schexnayder bring out the dramatic and personal contrasts between Hérode and Jean (John the Baptist). Note that Massenet’s Hérode is a baritone and his Jean is a tenor, the opposite of that we find in Strauss.
One of the main reasons why Massenet achieved such fluency in portraying atmosphere and drama was his mastery of the orchestra, and of orchestral-vocal balance in the theatre. Such things are easily taken for granted but in this case he achieved a notable success.
Given all these positives, why no enthusiastic recommendation? Quite the opposite, in fact. There is no libretto, alas, although the full accompanying essay by Andrew Palmer does include a useful synopsis. But this is hardly the reason that collectors are urged to search out the RCA recording conducted by Marcello Viotti, featuring a strong cast including Placido Domingo, Juan Pons, Agnes Baltsa and Nancy Gustafson. The problem with this Prêtre performance is quite simply the recorded sound, which is frankly unacceptable by modern standards. While there is a sense of atmosphere and occasion, the performers sound dim and distant, and the matter comes home to roost when the coughing and sundry noises from the audience become far louder than the performers, making listening a frustrating and sometimes uncomfortable experience.
Nor is the recorded sound much better in the interesting French version of Strauss’s Salome, which fills the majority of the third disc. At just under an hour this is not complete, but Andrew Palmer’s booklet note tells us that it was the work of Strauss himself, undertaken around 1930: ‘He consulted his friend, the novelist and poet Romain Rolland, while adapting Wilde’s text, and also made a few changes to the opera’s vocal lines.’ Those ‘few changes’ result in the loss of some 25% of the score, but it is not known whether the Montpellier Festival performance under Theodor Guschlbauer indulges in further cuts. It is a competent performance, but lacks the inner vitality of a great performance. Perhaps the French language itself softens the impact. The singing is good enough, but neither the vocal nor the orchestral aspects of the score leap out from the loudspeakers.
Terry Barfoot


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