Esclarmonde is perhaps Massenet's most ambitious work for the stage and is his most Wagnerian in style and scope.[a] In orchestral coloring and structure of melody, however, it follows French traditions. The opera has been revived sporadically in the modern era, most notably during the 1970s with Joan Sutherland, conducted by Massenet champion Richard Bonynge. The role of Esclarmonde is notoriously difficult to sing, with stratospheric coloratura passages that are possible for only the most gifted of performers.
The story of the opera is based on the medieval chivalric tale Parthénopéus de Blois, which was written in the middle of the 12th century by Denis Pyramus. In the original tale, however, the protagonist sorceress is called "Melior"; Esclarmonde's name was borrowed from another chanson de geste of the 13th century: Huon de Bordeaux. Although the Esclarmonde who appears in Huon is completely different from her operatic counterpart, Huon clearly served as the basis of at least part of the opera's libretto. Alfred Blau discovered Parthénopéus in 1871 in the library of Blois, where he took refuge during the time of the Paris Commune. The libretto was originally called Pertinax; it was first drafted in prose and later versified by Blau's collaborator, Louis de Gramont. In that form - a romantic melodrama in five acts - it was offered in 1882 to the Belgian composer François-Auguste Gevaert, who, however, declined to set it. Soon the libretto found its way into Massenet's hands, though the precise circumstances in which this occurred remain a mystery.
On 1 August 1886, Massenet and his publisher Georges Hartmann attended a performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, an event which deeply impressed the composer and had a significant influence on his music. He had already seen the entire Ring cycle when it was produced in Brussels in 1883.
In his Memoirs, which were compiled in 1911 near the end of his life, Massenet ascribes the creation of the role of Esclarmonde to a chance meeting with Sybil Sanderson sometime in the spring of 1887. He recounts how he was astonished by the range and capacity of her voice, realizing at once that she was the perfect choice for the heroine of his new opera, which he had begun to compose at end of 1886. It is almost certain, however, that he had received the libretto to Esclarmonde much earlier than that, and the meeting with Sybil Sanderson served rather as an additional catalyst - a stimulus to complete the opera. The work was commissioned as a spectacular event to open the Paris Exposition of 1889. During the most intensive period of creation in the summer of 1887, Massenet moved into the Grand Hotel in Vevey, where Miss Sanderson was also staying; there he rehearsed with her each evening the various sections of his new opera as he composed them. The opera was completed by the end of 1888, and stage rehearsals started at Opéra-Comique. Massenet dedicated the work to Sybil Sanderson in gratitude, allowing her signature to stand alongside his own in the manuscript of the score.
After a very successful initial run, however, the opera disappeared from the repertoire and fell into almost complete oblivion. Soon afterwards Sybil Sanderson fell ill. When she died around the start of the 20th century, it seems that Massenet himself lost interest in the opera he had written for her and he discouraged any further productions. The work was not revived until 1923, well after the composer's death. Some short-lived revivals then followed, either staged or in concert performance. It was only in the 1970s that the efforts of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland brought Esclarmonde back to life. Since then the work has been performed more frequently.
Listing below are partially based on (extracted from) Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Esclarmonde". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
December 17, 1888 - the first (stage) rehearsal of Esclarmonde at Opéra-Comique (Salle du Châtelet, Ancien Théâtre-Lyrique des Nations de la Comédie-Italienne) in Paris.
13 May 1889 - the final (dress) rehearsal of Esclarmonde.
15 May 1889 - the world premiere (9th day after inauguration of l'Exposition Universelle (1889)) at Opéra-Comique, Théâtre des Nations, place du Châtelet (Salle du Châtelet de l'Ancien Théâtre-Lyrique de la Comédie-Italienne), under direction of Charles-Auguste-Marie Ponchard, choreography by Louise Marquet, scenography and design by Antoine Lavastre, Eugène-Louis Carpezat, Amable Petit and Eugène-Benoît Gardy.Sibyl Sanderson performed the title role in her professional debut. The original costumes were by Charles Bianchini, the sets by Antoine Lavastre and Eugène Carpezat, and Amable and Eugène Gardy.
10 September 1889 - 50th performance of Esclarmonde in Théâtre National de Opéra-Comique in Paris (the cast the same as of premiere).
27 November 1889 - premiere of Esclarmonde at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels - conductor Joseph Dupont, Marguerite Zinah "Emma De Nuovina" (Esclarmonde), Émilie Durand-Ulbach (Parséis), Guillaume Ibos (Roland), Paul Isouard (Énéas), Maximilien-Nicolas "Max" Bouvet (Bishop of Blois), Mr. Challet (Cléomer), Mr. Sentein (Phorcas). 20 more performances followed that premiere.
10 January 1890 - premiere of Ex-Clarmonde at the Théâtre de l'Alcazar in Brussels. This folie-parodie by Luc Malpertuis and George Garnir had musical arrangements and new ballet music by Georges Nazy. It was the first production to feature stage sets by the prolific Albert Dubosq.
6 February 1890 - 100th performance of Esclarmonde at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (the cast as from premiere there). Before end of that season number of performances reached 110 (on average almost three per week), Sybil Sanderson singing the title role in all of them.
16 January 1892 - premiere of Esclarmonde in Saint Petersburg (at the Hermitage Theater at the Winter Palace), the main cast (thus including Sybil Sanderson in title role) exactly the same as from the Paris premiere, thus it was sung in the original French. The next few years, however, in Saint Petersburg, Esclarmonde was presented also at Mariinsky Theater, sang in Russian, where notable stars were Eduard Krushevsky (who debuted at conducting with great success that opera without prior preparation), and tenors Ivan Yershov and Mikhail Mikhaylov who shared the role of Roland).
30 January 1897 - premiere of Esclarmonde at the Grand Théâtre de Geneva, Switzerland.
24 December 1923 - premiere of Esclarmonde at the Théâtre de l'Opéra (Palais Garnier) in Paris. Philippe Gaubert (conductor); Pierre Chéreau (direction); C. Brooke (choreography); Paul Paquereau, Simas and Alexandre Bailly (scenography and design); Fanny Heldy (Esclarmonde), Yvonne Courso (Parséis), Paul Franz (Roland), Gaston Dubois (Énéas), Jean-François Delmas (Phorcas), Édouard Roux "Rouard" (Bishop of Blois), Albert Huberty (Cléomer).
11 November 1931 - revival of Esclarmonde at the Palais Garnier in Paris. François Ruhlmann (conductor), Pierre Chéreau (direction), Albert Aveline (choreography), Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi (Esclarmonde), Jeanne Manceau (Parséis), Georges Thill (Roland), Henri Le Clezio (Énéas), John Brownlee (Bishop of Blois), Albert Huberty (Phorcas), Grommen (Cléomer).
2 June 1934 - 27th performance of Esclarmonde at the Théâtre de l'Opéra (Palais Garnier) in Paris. François Ruhlmann (conducting), Pierre Chéreau (direction), Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi (Esclarmonde), Odette Ricquier (Parséis), Georges Thill (Roland), Henri Le Clezio (Énéas), Martial Singher (Bishop of Blois), Albert Huberty (Phorcas), Armand-Émile Narçon (Cléomer).
4 June 1942 - partial revival of Esclarmonde at the 'Académie Nationale de Musique (Théâtre de l'Opéra, Palais Garnier) in Paris during a "Massenet Gala", when after part of his oratorio La Vierge, there was also a concert performance of the 3rd tableau of Esclarmonde (first part of act 2), François Ruhlmann was conducting, Elen Dosia sang part of Esclarmonde together with Charles Fronval who sang the part of Roland.
1 January 1944 - revival of Esclarmonde at the Théâtre La Monnaie, Brussels, with total 6 performances given: Clara Clairbert (Esclarmonde), Livine Mertens (Parséis), José Lens (Roland), Francis Barthel (Énéas), Emile Colonne (Bishop of Blois), Maurice De Groote (Cléomer), Albert Mancel (Phorcas).
19 November 1976 - the Metropolitan Opera premiere, production borrowed from that in San Francisco in 1974, with 9 other performances in November (24th, 27th) and December (1st, 4th, 7th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 20th), live broadcast on December 11. Richard Bonynge (conducting), Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Huguette Tourangeau (Parséis), Giacomo Aragall (Roland), John Carpenter (Énéas), Louis Quilico (Bishop of Blois), Clifford Grant (Phorcas), John Macurdy (Cléomer).
28 November 1983 - the Royal Opera House premiere at Covent Garden, London, followed with other four performances in December of that year (on 6th, 10th, 13th and 16th). Production by Lotfi Mansouri, Beni Montresor (set design, costumes and lighting), Terry Gilbert (choreography), Richard Bonynge (conducting), Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Ernesto Veronelli (Roland), Diana Montague (Parséïs), Ryland Davies (Énéas), Gwynne Howell (Phorcas), Jonathan Summers (Bishop of Blois).
17 November 1992 - the Italian premiere at the Nuovo Teatro Regio di Torino (5 other performances followed; in November: 19, 24, 26, 29, and December 2). Lorenzo Mariani (direction), Pasquale Grossi (scenery and design), Tiziana Tosco (choreography), Alain Guingal (conducting); Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Esclarmonde), Claudia Nicole Bandera (Parséïs), Alberto Cupido (Roland), Ivan Kiurkciev (Enéas), Michele Pertusi (Phorcas), Manrico Biscotti (Bishop of Blois), Boris Martinovich (Cléomer).
6 June 1998 - concert performance by the Chelsea Opera Group (COG), (United Kingdom), at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Raphaëlle Farman (Esclarmonde), Harriet Williams (Parséïs), Justin Lavender (Roland), Jeremy White (Phorcas), Roberto Salvatori (Bishop of Blois), Richard Robson (Cléomer), Stephen Rooke (Enéas); Diana Cummings (Concertmaster), Christopher Fifield (Chorus Master), conducted by Howard Williams.
Nobles, Knights, Guards, Monks, Priests and Penitents, Warriors, Virgins, Children, Spirits, Courtiers, Populace; (Ballet) Spirits of forest, water, fire and air, Nymphs.
The story is based on a medieval legend and revolves around Esclarmonde, an empress and sorceress of Byzantium. Sequestered by her emperor father, Phorcas, who has recently abdicated the throne to her, she bemoans her love for Roland, a knight and Count of Blois, believing she will never be allowed to be with him. Following a suggestion from her sister, Parséïs, Esclarmonde uses her magic powers to transfer Roland to the magic island where she joins him and continues to do so on a nightly basis and, hiding behind a veil, never reveals her identity. She reveals to him also that his country is in danger, attacked and besieged by the Saracens, and grants him a magic sword with which he will be capable of defeating the enemy. It will serve him well as long as he will remain faithful to her.
Roland then goes to help the besieged Blois and wins the battle with the leader of the Saracens. In reward, he is granted by the king of France the hand of his royal daughter. But Roland refuses to accept that offer not disclosing the reason. When he finally confesses his nightly tryst to the Bishop of Blois, the bishop and a group of monks intervene on Esclarmonde's arrival, performing an exorcism and in a crucial moment manage to tear off her veil and thus reveal her identity. Feeling betrayed, Esclarmonde, in her bravura aria Ah Roland, tu m'as trahie, et me voilà... Regarde-les ces yeux, rebukes Roland for his faithlessness. The confrontation scene proceeds with Roland trying at the last moment to use his sword to defend her from the monks. Suddenly, the magic sword shatters to pieces, and Esclarmonde, surrounding herself with a ring of fire and demons, curses Roland and disappears.
The ex-emperor, Phorcas, upon hearing of Esclarmonde's disobedience, summons her to him and insists she renounce Roland. He threatens to remove her magic powers and to execute Roland. Reluctantly, she submits and when Roland is brought before her she implores him to forget her. A tournament takes place to award the victor with Esclarmonde's hand in marriage. When the winner, clad all in black, is asked his name, he replies "despair", and refuses the hand of Esclarmonde. Esclarmonde recognizes the voice immediately, however, as that of Roland, and when her veil is lifted he recognizes her as well and all hail the new empress and her valiant consort.
Esclarmonde (recorded July 1975, Kingsway Hall, London). Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Huguette Tourangeau (Parséis), Clifford Grant (L'Empereur Phorcas), Giacomo Aragall (Le Chevalier Roland), Louis Quilico (L'Evêque de Blois), Ryland Davies (Enéas), Robert Lloyd (Cléomer, Roi de France), John Alldis Choir, National Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Richard Bonynge. Decca. 475-7914 (3CDs). ADD STEREO STUDIO.
Esclarmonde (December 11, 1976): Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, Clifford Grant, Giacomo (Jaime) Aragall, Louis Quilico, cond. Richard Bonynge, available from the MetOpera radio during periodical re-broadcasts on Sirius Radio, or "music on demand" at Rhapsody, or by subscription within the Met-player (TT: 147'22").
Esclarmonde (November 28, 1983): The Royal Opera, live in-house recording. Joan Sutherland, Diana Montague, Gwynne Howell, Ernesto Veronelli, Jonathan Summers, Geofrey Moses, cond. Richard Bonynge. Available as the Web stream at Opera Today archives (TT: 142'55")
Esclarmonde (November/December 1992): Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Esclarmonde), Teatro Regio di Torino, LIVE; Charles Handelman VHS Video Cassette - Live Opera 09122, NTSC, 2002. (TT: 158'00")
Esclarmonde, complete. Live recording in October/November 1992 at the Massenet Festival in Saint Étienne, Grand Théâtre de la Maison de la Culture et de la Communication). Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni; José Sempere; Hélène Perraguin; Jean-Philippe Courtis (Phorcas and Cléomer); Christian Tréguier; Guy Gabelle. Choeurs du Festival Massenet, Orchestre Symphonique Franz Liszt, Budapest, cond. Patrick Fournillier. Koch-Swann, released 1994, DDD, 3-1269-2 H1 (TT: 156'31", 3CDs).
^To describe it as Wagnerian is a little overstatement. Leitmotivs are clear and distinct, "Wagner-like", but beyond some melodic or harmonic resemblance to ones used by Wagner (particularly in his Tristan und Isolde, Das Rheingold, or Götterdämmerung), they are nevertheless very original. Unlike in Wagner, and in so many other composers, there is no tragedy, death or self-sacrifice involved.
^Upton describes one of Esclarmonde's arias in the third act as "extremely brilliant and difficult, making exacting demands upon the voice." In Act 3, for instance, are some numerous moments requiring voice range, as written, from the middle C up to top G (over top C). Even though Massenet himself allowed some "scale down" on the highest note used (from G6 to "only" E♭6), still it is higher than average soprano can go. Moreover, long lasting legato, jumps from high register to the low (with full dynamic range), trills and staccato on high notes, make all that role unusually difficult and taxing for average soprano to sing.
^Usually described as mezzo-soprano, that is lower than that of Esclarmonde, but both Esclarmonde and Parsé?s never have to reach for anything lower than Middle C. Thus role of Parsé?s can be sung by a soprano capable to reach note "B5 flat" (under top "C").
^Massenet, Jules (1970). My Recollections. New York: Greenwood Reprinting. pp. 176-183. ISBN0-404-04229-5.
Ira, Siff. "Archival Instincts: Interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge". Opera News, October 2005, vol. 70, no. 4.