DDespite the familiarity of Thaïs’ Meditation in concert halls, Massenet’s operas did not do well in the UK, where only Manon can claim any place in the repertoire. Yet as a creator of pleasantly melodic and dramatically satisfying stage works, the French composer knew his craft, as evidenced by the infrequent concerts of his lesser-known works.
Here, fresh from their recent triumphant staging of Candide, Scottish Opera presented a lightly staged concert of Thérèse, a work which received its Scottish premiere despite being written at the turn of the 20th century. The opera is a three-handed melodrama set against the backdrop of the bloody early days of the French Revolution. The Girondins Thérèse and André have taken over the stewardship of the castle left vacant by an aristocrat on the run, the childhood friend of André Armand. Of course, there’s a twist: Thérèse was previously in love with Armand before she married André, a fact that André is blissfully unaware of.
The love triangle plays out against a backdrop of political foment, Massenet juxtaposing the intimate and personal drama with the impersonal machinery of revolution in his music. Like an opera in two acts, the action is much more telescoped than expanded: it takes about 10 minutes for the first reference to the Marseillaise to emerge and at the end of the first half hour Thérèse and Armand are reunited. There’s no time for a gradual exposition of the characters, instead the drama spins at a steady pace, all romantic angst and passionate outbursts.
Dramas set against the backdrop of the French Revolution rarely end well and Thérèse is no exception, although unlike Poulenc, Massenet ends before her protagonists meet their grisly ends on the front of the stage. Instead, at the climax of the opera, Thérèse abandons singing for theatrical declamation, as if at this moment the music could no longer contain her emotions. It’s pure melodrama, with all the over-the-top intensity of a daytime soap opera and hugely fun to watch.
Much of the performance’s success is due to mezzo soprano Justina Gringytė’s magnificent performance as Thérèse, her beautifully rich tones giving us great emotion wrapped in a beautifully idiomatic French style. She enjoys strong but not quite equal support from her male counterparts, with bass-baritone Dingle Yandell as André and tenor Shengzhi Ren negotiating Armand’s sometimes dangerously high vocal writing. , although not totally comfortable. Still, with the Scottish Opera orchestra under French conductor Alexandra Cravero reveling in the thumps and sighs of Massenet’s score, it made for a delightful short evening at the theatre; a slice of melodrama rather than the whole pie.