Operatic Advice and Counsel…A Welcome New Reference Book

For all the currency of a few Bizet,
Massenet and Gounod chestnuts, and the occasional appearance of a well-polished
rarity such as Pelleas et Melisande, French opera in general is
something of a hidden treasure.

I recall around 1990 when the new Opera Bastille was being inaugurated in
Paris, it opened with Berlioz’ celebrated masterwork, Les
, a well-judged and appropriate nod to a great cultural history.
But then, the repertory wandered off into a mix of international opera most of
it with little relevance to the history of French opera. Had they wished to
show the strength of France’s operatic history, Paris Opera could easily
have mounted several weeks of strictly French operas, each one of them a work
of merit and interest.

Splendor is what the period of mid-1800s through the first part of the 20th
C. had to offer to operatic France, and to the world. I wondered at the time
why French opera powers did not open their capacious new modern house in the
Place Bastille with a run of French composed operas that, in addition to the
Berlioz, might include two or three enduring successes of Massenet, the
standards of Gounod and Ambroise Thomas, of course Charpentier’s
Louise, but including later novelties such as Massenet’s
Jongleur de Notre-Dame and the Marouf of Henri Rabaud, even
Enesco’s Oedipe — names everyone knows from books, but who
has heard them? The recent successful revival of Pelleas et Melisande,
vividly conducted by Simon Rattle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, again
demonstrates the durability of Debussy’s highly original masterpiece that
in the right hands becomes stunning music theatre. Giroud, a distinguished
librarian and music scholar, assures us there are many more waiting to be
heard. So, the French are like anyone else, and maybe more so, in that genius,
or at least quality, is often not recognized at home.

Mr. Giroud’s new book indirectly takes cognizance of this point, for
while he necessarily includes in his chronological history, running from Rameau
and Gluck to Satie and Messiaen, just about every name to be found in history
books, and his commentary is always well-informed and thoughtful, the reader
will profit most from his discussion of the rarities — the French operas
we know of but do not know, many of which, as Giroud points out, have much to
offer. For standard repertory, the reader will not experience much new insight,
though the discussions are rich and balanced. On the other hand, once
Faust, Carmen, Manon, Werther,
Mignon, Samson et Dalila and Louise are disposed of,
the new history really earns its fee with discussions of the lesser known
masters of the Second Empire era when the Paris Conservatory ruled musical
Europe (pace Wagner), up through the crisis of WWI, and a certain
revival of composition in France in the 1920s and especially the 1930s.

I come away from Giroud keen to hear productions of Adolphe Adam, Victor
MassÈ, Ernest Reyer, Alfred Bruneau and late Massenet (after 1900). Our author
lauds the Roumanian-born, Paris-trained, Georges Enesco whose Oedipe,
Giroud claims is, “the greatest French opera of the period (1936);”
a current and highly regarded recording with bass Jose van Dam attests to this
sound judgment.

From Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902) to ChÈrubin and
several others, Giroud recommends the last decade of Jules Massenet’s
compositions as much underrated and deserving of revival, calling Massenet a
composer comparable to Puccini and Strauss who, “has yet to be fully
recognized in his own country.” This opera lover was fortunate to hear in
1989 ChÈrubin, and in 2006, Cendrillon in original
productions at Santa Fe Opera, the excellence of which supports our
author’s claim. Giroud also discusses Alfred Bruneau, “a prime
candidate for revival,” and he tells why. I’d love to follow his

I put the new Giroud history of French opera alongside the 2008 reissue of
George Whitney Martin’s great standard The Opera Companion, as
must-have essentials for any opera lover’s library. Where they both treat
the same material, Gounod’s Faust for example, comparison of
their disparate views makes for lively reading, in fact one can say that of the
whole Giroud book.

J. A. Van Sant © 2011


image_description=French Opera — A Short History
product_title=French Opera — A Short History
product_by=Vincent Giroud, Yale University Press, 2010
product_id=ISBN: 9780300117653