Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Sapho - opera in five acts (1897) [129:28]
Fanny Legrand - an artist’s model (Sapho) - Renée Doria (soprano)
Jean Gaussin - Gines Sirera (tenor)
Divonne - Gisele Ory (mezzo)
Césaire - Adrien Legros (bass)
Irène - Elya Waisman (soprano)
Orchestre Symphonique de la Garde Républicaine/Roger Boutry
rec. March-April 1978, Salle Wagram, Paris, stereo. ADD
MALIBRAN CDRG 199 [67:26 + 62:02]
Few people nowadays have heard of Massenet’s Sapho. It has a lot going for it, but it hardly qualifies as a forgotten gem. The story bears striking similarities to elements of both La Traviata and La Rondine. Sapho is the pseudonym of Fanny Legrand, an artist’s model with a notorious reputation. She meets and falls in love with the impressionable young Jean, who is unaware of her past. When he finds out he leaves her for the bosom of his family in Provence and the innocent Irène, but he later regrets his decision and returns to Fanny. She accepts his apology but, when he falls asleep, she leaves him forever.
The plot has potential, but Verdi and Puccini had already explored its possibilities to the nthdegree and much of Massenet’s dramatic structure feels contrived. The whole of Act 4, for example, where Fanny goes to Avignon to plead with Jean’s family, is entirely unnecessary and there are other longueurs elsewhere. The scene with the most potential is the second of Act 3, where Jean reads the letters from Fanny’s former lovers before forcing her to burn them. There is proper drama there, though the music doesn’t quite manage to match it. Other aspects are attractive enough, including a touch of Provençal colour with Jean’s Act 1 aria, “Ce monde que je vois”, which then returns sung from a distance in Act 4. Mostly, though, Massenet’s style is declamatory and conversational, lacking the rich arcs of melody that characterise his greatest masterpieces, such as Manon and Werther. The piece contains very few proper arias or even ensembles. The music for Fanny and Jean’s love scene in Act 2 is pretty but hardly approaches the lyrical heights of other Massenet operas. Elsewhere, such as in the party scene of Act 1, the music comes across as somewhat clumsy. Small wonder, then, that it has never really found widespread favour, falling, as it does, half-way between old fashioned “number” opera and the more Wagnerian, through-composed style.
I am told that this recording originally appeared elsewhere but, for reasons that must remain mysterious, it has found itself re-released, with no contextual explanation, on the Malibran label. Unfortunately, the performance isn’t particularly good. The heroine Renée Doria sounds far too matronly to be a convincing harlot, and she is a touch on the shrill side too: her outburst at the end of Act 3, Scene 1, for example, sounds distinctly iffy! It’s the sort of role that you’d like to hear sung by the likes of Renée Fleming today. There are certain similarities of colour between Fleming’s and Doria’s voices, but Doria sounds, frankly, past it by the time this recording was made and the effortful quality of her voice is very off-putting. Gines Sirera has an appropriately French tone to his singing, lyrical and rounded with a slightly nasal twang. He doesn’t know the meaning of subtlety and he tends to bluster through each scene like a bull in a china shop. Elya Waisman as Irène is, if anything even more shrill than Doria, and there is no allure in her Act 2 duet with Jean. The playing of the orchestra is distinctly workmanlike, and altogether it feels as though very few people were sufficiently committed to the project, or that their efforts did not yield sufficient artistic results.
All things considered, then, this is probably a release for die-hard Massenet fans only. The world still awaits a decent recorded Sapho, but I doubt that anyone is in much of a hurry to commission a new one any time soon. The other consideration is that there is no documentation to speak of at all with the discs, bar a track list and cast list. There are no texts or translations, and not even a synopsis to help you on the way. Is that really good enough for an opera so little known?
Simon Thompson
All things considered this is a release for die-hard Massenet fans only.