Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hérodiade and the 19th century French repertoire

I decided to split the discussion about Hérodiade in two parts: (1) As this opera is in a bulk of 19th century French operas, I think it is the right moment to throw in a couple of paragraphs about my observations concerning the perception of this genre in France today; (2) A short review of the wonderfully successful new production of Hérodiade presented at the Flanders Opera (Vlaamse Opera).

I believe one could even make an interesting social study about the cultural diversity in France from this little cultural corner that mixes creative art and national heritage -- 19th century operas. Don't worry! This is not what I intent to do here ;)
If I was to paint a black-and-white picture about the relation between the French public today and the 19th century French operas, the critics would have called it schizophrenic. Below I explain why.

One should keep in mind that most of these operas were created to please the poorly educated and socially very conservative Parisian bourgeoisie. The classic and other plays were converted into librettos and in the process revised/butchered as not to upset the taste of judgmental opera-goers, and to be conformal with rigid ground rules of social conduct, implicitly defined by the Catholic church of that time. A typical and perhaps the best known example of that kind is Gounod's Faust [Germans never forgave the travesty of the Goethe's masterpiece and even today they regularly refer to this opera as to 'Margarete']

Once you factor in this element of revisionists sifting the `morally unacceptable' stuff away from the librettos, you can easily understand why after Mozart opera parted its ways from theater and plunged into 'dead art'. At the same time, it makes it clearer why Carmen was so revolutionary [morally transgressive] for the times of its creation, and why it was instantly roasted by the critics and public alike.

That epoch is today considered as "Old France", and to a fraction of opera-goers today
  • the 19th century operatic repertoire is a patrimony to be cherished; it is sometimes a source of inspiration for feeding a tired nationalism; or it is a mere vector to "good-ole-times" [socially conservative and politically very likely on the right, or leaning towards], or
  • these operas symbolize the religiously exclusive, socially conservative and self-righteous France, relatable to colonialism,  to a bad past in WW2, and so they reject them altogether, often regardless of their musical content [socio-political lefties]
Of course, real life is not as contrasted and you have many-many shades of gray between the two of the above categories. Yet these two poles are still visible in the French cultural panorama, and when you see one of these operas produced in France (which is much less often than you'd imagine!), it is very likely that it is produced in a way to please the first of the above categories, only to further reinforces a staunch rejection by those on the other side of the spectrum.

Personally I find it unfortunate that the younger generations in France see little of these operas today, and when they are given opportunity to see them, they mostly perceive them as archaic, shabby and produced in a way to please old traditionalists. This obviously works only to the detriment of the 19th century repertoire, which --regardless of the way you can see it today-- remains a true musical treasure. Not only the young generations can hardly relate to the way these operas are presented today.  An important element in any West-European society today --and maybe even more so in France-- is "immigration": they too cannot relate with the shabby productions which celebrate an obsolete idea of France. That too works to the detriment of the 19th century French repertoire, its future, and --as a corollary--  increasingly contradicts the idea of subsidized culture.

To bridge the cultural differences, in my opinion, the 19th century repertoire should be amped up by modern productions, that theatrically aim at addressing the issues relevant to men and women of our time.

Rejecting the whole repertoire --as the lefties often tend to do-- is irrational and extreme. Many of these operas are musically wonderful, and they often show that the librettists & composers tried to get around the moral codex of their time. Jules Massenet is a good example, as he is often considered as an exponents of this repertoire. When you put his operas in the right time-frame, you can see how he cleverly challenged the rules of what was morally acceptable in opera -- even in Manon. Hérodiade is even a more striking example in that respect, and it is not a surprise to read that La Scala and the Paris Opera flatly refused his work -- in which John the Baptist doubts his divine love and struggles to resist the temptation of terrestrial love with Salomé, to finally understand that this terrestrial love is divine too.

Hérodiade was eventually premiered at La Monnaie in Brussels, in December 1881, and soon became a huge success that spurred a massive migration of Parisian cultural milieu to Brussels. Only years after Massenet's death, Hérodiade was premiered at the Paris Opera (in 1921).

I should stress again that all of the above is written by keeping a contrast sharp enough to make the arguments clear, but in real life the things are obviously more complex: many French composers had chosen not to please the moral rules of conduct of the 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie and suffered a great deal for that (the most famous example is that of Berlioz.) Masssenet's Hérodiade was not only refused for being 'too provocative' but also because it was dramatically weak, lacking a coherent linear action. Massenet worked on Hérodiade for many years after its premiere and made many updates, but even the final work is not dramatically very well structured and the spectator, not very familiar with the story, gets easily confused when the opera is staged in its most straightforward, narrative way.

Today, however, I believe the weakness of Hérodiade [lack of a clean dramatic coherence] can be turned into its advantage: it offers an opportunity to clever and competent directors of our time to exhibit the brightness of their talent. To make this piece work with public today, you should reshuffle it and shape it up as to become more comprehensible, and relevant to all of us today.

That Hérodiade is indeed a fertile ground for talented directors who have ideas and who can propose something interesting, is perfectly illustrated in the MAGNIFICENT new production of this opera directed by  Joachim Schlömer, that I saw 10 days ago (c.f. next entry).

I would like to stress that the observations written above are not meant to criticize social or cultural categories in France today, but to pull away the good 19th century French operas from the claws of cultural idiocy (of both sides of the issue!) My main point is: Modern productions, adapted to talk to men and women of our time, is the only viable formula to make these operas outlast the 21st century.

Inside the Vlaamse Opera in Ghent

Before I post about Hérodiade at the Flanders Opera, please read a succinct synopsis, so you can better understand the features of this new production.

The libretto for Hérodiade is based on Hérodias --one of the three tales in Trois contes by G. Flaubert, appeared in 1877-- and was finished in 1878 by Milliet & Grémont.

Musically, the opera is charming, peculiarly French-sounding, and --for what it's worth-- to me sounds as good as (if not even better than) Werther or Manon. There are several good recordings, of which I believe the one with Heppner, Hampson, Studer, Van Dam and Denize is the best.

Two arias, perhaps too old and somewhat creepy, but well sung and good for appetizers:

One curiosity about Ghent: France is known for all kinds of ways to fit in the snails onto your menu, but I NEVER saw the snails sold on the street. In Ghent I did ;)  Proof:

Ghent is a very charming and pleasant city:


  1. As for me, it's not for political reasons I dislike Massenet, but because of the weak music (and libretto!) of his operas, little bit like Puccini (or Giordano, or Hindemith - just listening to Mathis!). But you're right in saying one of the main problems of these works is the way they're produced: the reject wouldn't be so great if some interesting directors were stimulated by them.
    If I love Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, it is not because of Anna Viebrock's production at Bastille, but Viebrock helped me to understand this work I was rather supposed to dislike.

  2. What you're saying about Dukas and Ariane, is a good illustration of what I claim to be the core of the problem. It is likely that your distaste for Massenet has been provoked by the shabby productions that you've been served when discovering his operas. If you don't know Hérodiade, and you saw the current production in Ghent/Antwerp, I am pretty sure you'd soften your opinion about Massenet [no, you wouldn't have changed it! ;)]

    BTW, I think my statement about Hindemith (Pfitzner in disguise) became even more accurate after I saw Mathis. It is like "2 pounds of music" written according to extremely rigid rules of post-wagnerianism. Berg et al. on one side, and Weill et al. on the other, simply had to happen to liberate art.

  3. I didn't see Mathis, but I heard the broadcast: awful music. I think if I had the painful choice between seeing Palestrina again (I saw it in Munich, Stückl directing, see DVD) or seeing Mathis, I would rather choose the Palestrina if I can't avoid it...
    To Massenet: maybe it could have some interest on the stage, because of the story, the caracters... but my God, this music! Not better than Puccini...

  4. I saw this Palestrina in Munich at the Festspiele 2009, and despite excellent M. Volle and C. Ventris I was dying of boredom. With Hindemith, Py did the spectacular job (OK very similar to what I'd seen from him in Roméo et Juliette in Amsterdam) but the music is simply too formated... too boring.

    There were as many people who disliked it, as those who loved it passionately tho.
    Different strokes...

  5. I was deeply bored too, but at least the music was tolerable, not that ugly.
    I forgot to add that what you say about 19th c. French operas, that they are worth to be somehow redeemed by the staging, is for me even more true for another repertoire you don't like very much, as far as I know: the "belcanto" repertoire from the first half of the 19th c.
    But on the other hand, one shouldn't forget a bad work in a good staging remains a bad work, for instance the Bieito Aida: very impressive, very interesting, gorgeous sets - but hey, that was unfortunately still Aida!