Despite the familiarity of the Meditation from Thaïs in the concert hall, Massenet’s operas haven’t fared well in the UK, where only Manon could be said to have any kind of place in the repertoire. Yet as a creator of pleasingly melodic and dramatically satisfying stage works the French composer knew his craft, as infrequent concert performances of his lesser-known works attest.
Here, fresh from their recent triumphant promenade staging of Candide, Scottish Opera presented a slightly staged concert performance of Thérèse, a work receiving 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 early, bloodthirsty days of the French Revolution. Girondists Thérèse and André have taken over the stewardship of the chateau vacated by a fleeing aristocrat, André’s childhood friend Armand. Of course there’s a twist: Thérèse was previously in love with Armand before she married André, a fact of which André is blissfully unaware.
The love triangle plays out against the backdrop of political foment, Massenet juxtaposing the intimate, personal drama against the impersonal machine of the revolution in his music. As a two-act opera the action is very much telescoped rather than expanded: it takes approximately 10 minutes for the first reference to the Marseillaise to emerge and by the end of the first half hour Thérèse and Armand are reunited. There’s no time for gradual character exposition, instead the drama whirls on at a brisk pace, all romantic angst and passionate outbursts.
Dramas set against a backdrop of the French Revolution rarely end well and Thérèse is no exception, although, unlike Poulenc, Massenet stops short of having his protagonists meeting their grisly ends centre stage. Instead, at the climax of the opera Thérèse abandons singing for theatrical declamation, as if at that moment music can no longer contain her emotions. It’s pure melodrama, with all the over-the-top intensity of a daytime soap opera and tremendously fun to watch.
Much of the success of the performance is down to mezzo soprano Justina Gringytė’s magnificent performance as Thérèse, her gorgeously rich tones giving us high emotion wrapped in beautifully idiomatic French style. She has solid although not quite equal support from her male counterparts, with bass-baritone Dingle Yandell as André and tenor Shengzhi Ren negotiating the at times perilously high vocal writing of Armand, although not totally at ease. Yet with the orchestra of Scottish Opera under the baton of French conductor Alexandra Cravero luxuriating in the swoops and sighs of Massenet’s score, it made for a delightful short evening in the theatre; a slice of melodrama rather than the whole gateau.