The French Revolution has not proven to be a particularly fertile subject for opera. Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier (1896) was the first, and apart from Jules Massenet’s Thérèse (1907) and Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites (1957), there are only a few works that have mined this rich topic that would seem a perfect mix of tragedy and terror.
Massenet might not have tried his hand, had it not been for his infatuation with the English/French mezzo-soprano Lucy Arbell. She was the final of his three operatic muses to inspire him to create several of his most important works. The first was the Californian Sibyl Sanderson, a great beauty with a brilliant and extended top range, for whom he wrote Esclarmonde and Thaïs. Next, he showed his admiration for the art of the well-known French soprano Emma Calvé, by writing leading roles for her in Sapho and La Navarraise. Arbell was his final muse. Thérèse and Don Quichotte were two of the operas in which she was featured. After the composer’s death she would cause great embarrassment to his heirs when she sued (unsuccessfully) for exclusive rights to perform the heroines he composed for her.
In Mes souvenirs (My memories), Massenet writes of the genesis of Thérèse. During a visit with friends to the Carmelite convent in Paris, where one of the great massacres of the Reign of Terror took place, the group saw what they took to be a ghost. It turned out to be Lucy Arbell, who had moved away from the group in order to hide her emotion on hearing the tragic story of Lucile Desmoulins, who was sent to the guillotine for defending her husband, executed a few days earlier. Later, at a lunch in the Italian embassy, the Countess Tornielli told of how the building, formerly the home of the Gallifet family, had been guarded against confiscation by a faithful servant. The servant had awaited the family’s return and turned over the home to one of the few surviving family members. This loyalty is mirrored, in the opera Thérèse, by the actions of the son of a family retainer, André Thorel, who buys the Clerval estate hoping to return it to his childhood friend, the Marquis Armand de Clerval.
For the libretto Massenet turned to Jules Claretie, with whom he had previously collaborated on La Navarraise and who had written a novel about the Desmoulins. The composer began serious work on the opera in December 1905, working with his librettist via telephone, a novel enough occurrence that it would be mentioned in the reviews as evidence of how modern the composer was. The opera received its premiere on February 7, 1907 at the Salle Garnier in Monte Carlo, a company under the direction of the enterprising Raoul Gunsbourg and under the patronage of Prince Albert, with whom Massenet was friendly. The first performance was a great success. The opera was first seen in Paris in 1911 (on a double bill with the premiere of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole) and over the next few years Thérèse was repeated numerous times in theaters throughout France. Excerpts, via a piano reduction published concurrently with the premiere, were very popular in Paris’s fashionable salons.
Over 25 completed operas, Massenet displays a great diversity of subject and as a result, of musical treatment. His most famous work, Manon, is an opéra comique, on a popular novel, while Le Cid is a true grand opera, based on the story of an historical hero, treated with great pageantry. Cendrillon is a version of the Cinderella story and is entitled an opéra féerique and La Navarraise, composed in a much more naturalistic vein, has been associated with verismo. In an interview the composer stated, “You will notice… that my works are taken from a variety of subjects… I tear myself away from one world to immerse myself immediately in another one that is very different. That is the best way to avoid monotony.”
In Thérèse Massenet takes a story similar in nature to Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, where lovers embrace execution as sign of their love and fidelity, but dispenses with any additional characters (apart from the janitor Morel), minimizes the use of the chorus, and concentrates on the love triangle of the heroine, her husband, and his childhood friend, who had once been her lover. The tension of the Revolution is evoked through naturalistic touches: a newsboy offstage, drum rolls, and the sounds of rifle butts hitting the ground, while the pre-revolutionary era is evoked in a gentle minuet as Armand and Thérèse recall their earlier love. At the same time the focus remains on the relationship of the three main characters, which is generally expressed in richly romantic terms. In this compact work, the bulk of the drama takes place in a series of romantic duets in which Thérèse declares her love and respect for her husband Thorel or agonizes over her past relationship with Armand. Her resolute acceptance of her duty occurs in a brief but dramatic moment as she joins her husband in their ultimate fate.
Although initially quite successful, changing tastes meant that Thérèse was not destined to remain a repertoire piece, but it is an opera worth hearing to explore the richness of Massenet’s talent. In his review of the premiere, Gabriel Fauré wrote, “Many situations in Thérèse give rise to enticing melodies, expressions of tenderness, noble or pathetic strains, charming episodes, all of which flow with abundance and ease from the wellspring that Massenet has drawn on many times without its ever running dry.”
Richard Russell is Sarasota Opera’s General Director