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Massenet's Esclarmonde with Washington Concert Opera

Sometimes the most memorable melodies are crafted from the simplest material (see the recent blog discussion on what makes Catchy Tunes so damn catchy from Scott Spiegelberg). Jules Massenet definitely understood this, because he created a very effective motif, in dotted rhythms outlining a minor triad, in his opera Esclarmonde. It’s a sort of magical spell, cast first by Esclarmonde and heard throughout the opera whenever magic is involved. The melody is a triple incantation: "Spirits of air! Spirits of water! Spirits of fire!" This seems like nothing when you look at it on the page, but the way that Massenet repeats it structurally, and also clothes it in various orchestrations, transforms it into a central idea of the opera. My transcription here is not taken from the actual score and is based only on my memory of the music from the performance, so it may not be exactly right.

Esclarmonde (1889), which Massenet and his librettists, Alfred Blau and Louis de Gramont, called an opéra romanesque (derived from the 13th-century epic Parténopeus de Blois), came to my ears for the first time thanks to the latest performance by conductor Antony Walker and the Washington Concert Opera on Friday night, April 8, at Lisner Auditorium. They have been bringing unusual and rarely performed operas, in concert version, to Washington audiences since 1986 (with Mr. Walker for three years). They have really hit on a gem this time, because I think that this Massenet opera would be quite exciting to see staged (it has all kinds of fun magical scenes) and it would be a great vehicle for some star soprano out there (La Fleming? La Hunt Lieberson? Maestro Domingo, I hope you are reading, a new production of Esclarmonde at Washington National Opera would be the perfect occasion to bring Natalie Dessay here, if she recovers from yet more throat surgery). There is a recording (buy it from Amazon), featuring one of the great divas, Joan Sutherland, which she described as her favorite recording. (You can hear a short clip from La Sutherland's performance of "Esprits de l'air!" from Amazon.)

For this opera is indeed an excellent vehicle for its stunning coloratura lead. As Frank Conlon, Professor of Music at George Washington University, related in his informative program notes, the opera was in effect cosigned by the American soprano who created the role, Sibyl Sanderson, who sang for Massenet at a dinner party in Paris. Here's an excerpt from the notes:
In Mes Souvenirs, Massenet recounts her performance of the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute. "What a stupendous voice! She went from low G to high G, three octaves both in full voice and pianissimo. I was amazed, thunderstruck, overwhelmed!"
Massenet prepared her to sing the role of Manon and composed both Esclarmonde and Thaïs (1894) expressly for her. (There is an excellent photograph of Sibyl Sanderson, costumed as Esclarmonde, here, along with a synopsis of the opera, in French. The same Web site has an image of the poster for the original 1889 Paris production.)

The performance Friday night was definitely anchored in the person of soprano Celena Shafer, and it seems pretty clear that the opera would be far less enchanting (someone stop me) if the role of the Byzantine empress and magician, Esclarmonde, were not performed by a top-notch coloratura. We learn in the prologue that Esclarmonde has been named Empress of Byzantium by her father, Phorcas, and has received all of his magical powers. He imposes one condition, that she must remain veiled to all men until she turns 20 or she will lose everything. She decides to use her magic to prevent the knight with whom she has fallen in love, Roland, from marrying another woman.

In an elegant silver gown, Ms. Shafer clearly relished the most demanding moments in Massenet's score. The first real challenge comes in the bewitching (I need pun therapy) conclusion of the first act, beginning with the aformentioned "Esprits de l'air!" When the sorceress commands the spirits, "Obéissez-moi!," Massenet requires the singer to soar up to the heights of her range. It is pyrotechnical writing for the voice on par with that of the Queen of the Night. The rousing curtain call and shouts of "Bravo!" that greeted Ms. Shafer at the end of this scene clearly caught her off guard. (Her expression of surprise—Who, me?—was more charming than affected.) She was no less enthusiastically received, quite worthily, for the rest of her spellbinding (will it never end?) performance.

Esclarmonde's spell succeeds, and Roland (sung admirably by tenor Robert Breault, but without the same power as Ms. Shafer) is carried off to an enchanted island, where she joins him. The sounds of the first act (which have a lot in common with the fantastic music of Tchaikovsky) yield to a style that clearly had an influence on composers like Ravel and Debussy, with prominent parts for harp, plucked strings, and triangle and other tinkling percussion. As Professor Conlon observed in his program notes, Massenet had been listening to Wagner and a number of elements in the orchestration, the use of something like leitmotifs, and dirty harmony seem quite Wagnerian in this opera. The orchestral part was rendered beautifully by the WCO orchestra, in Mr. Walker's capable hands. The only disappointment was the organ part (used in church scenes, in a way not unlike that in Manon). There being no real organ at Lisner, those sounds came from an electronic instrument, which sounded awful. I suppose that renting a small moveable pipe organ is prohibitively expensive.

Accompanying Celena Shafer was an excellent supporting cast, including the dark and rich sound of mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco (as Esclarmonde's sister, Parséïs), the potent young bass Robert Gardner (as the Bishop of Blois), and veteran bass-baritone François Loup (as Cléomer, the besieged King of France), who teaches at the University of Maryland. Bass-baritone Dean Peterson (as Esclarmonde's father, the retired Emperor Phorcas) gave a dramatic and moving performance, especially the scene in Act IV in which he condemns Esclarmonde for having shown her face to Robert, one of the great father-daughter duets out there. The WCO chorus gave a stirring performance, too, and it has a crucial role in the opera. Only two big entrances seemed to catch the male half of the chorus with their pants somewhat down, until Mr. Walker's frantic motions got them back on track.

All in all, I was very happy to have the chance to hear this opera live for the first time, and in such a good rendition. It is always a mystery how a good opera like this one, which was given over 100 performances in its initial run, could disappear from the mainstream repertoire. I was also pleased to make the aural acquaintance of some very good new singers, of whom Celena Shafer was the most remarkable example. Washington Concert Opera will close its season with one last performance, Verdi's Luisa Miller, on Sunday, June 5, 2005, at 6:00 pm, in Lisner Auditorium.

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