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Making A Case For Massenet, The Misunderstood Sentimentalist

French composer Jules Massenet died 100 years ago, leaving the opera world with a wealth of elegantly composed dramas.
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French composer Jules Massenet died 100 years ago, leaving the opera world with a wealth of elegantly composed dramas.

Poor Jules Massenet. How could the most successful French opera composer of his generation fall so far out of fashion? Perhaps the new 23-CD box set of Massenet's music, marking the 100th anniversary of his death (yesterday), holds some clues.

Even in his day, some considered Massenet a moldy sentimentalist who tried little more than to please his audiences. His elegantly crafted operas, with their conventional lead characters (many of them troubled women) won him the disrespectful nickname "The daughter of Gounod," referring to the earlier Frenchman whose style Massenet was, his detractors claimed, indebted to. Then there was composer Gabriel Fauré, who in a letter to his wife referred to Massenet's "vulgar, impassioned whinings."

But Massenet probably laughed all the way to the bank. His grand opera Le roi de Lahore (1877), an early success, was performed nearly 60 times in its first two seasons. It was enough to land him a cushy professorship at the Paris Conservatory, where he proceeded to instruct the next generation of French opera composers, including Gustav Charpentier, Gabriel Pierné, Charles Koechlin and Reynaldo Hahn.

By 1900 Massenet's Le Cid, considered one of his lesser efforts, had been staged 100 times at the Palais Garnier in Paris, and five years later Manon had reached its 500th performance. In the late 1930s, more than a quarter century after Massenet's death, Manon was second in popularity only to Bizet's Carmen at the Opéra-Comique.

Recent attitudes have been a little kinder to Massenet, yet old perceptions still persist. Over the years, whenever I've admitted that one of my very favorite operas is Massenet's Werther, I get smirks of disbelief from classical music know-it-alls. Sometimes I wonder if Massenet's music is too gorgeous for its own good. I love Massenet for his suave melodies, the intimacy of his characters and the well-built, cultured elegance of the music. It goes down mighty smooth. What's not to like?

While Massenet might not have been a major trailblazer musically, he triumphs in the longevity department. Think of Massenet's peers, such as Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, Chabrier and Chausson. How many of their operas have survived in the standard repertory? Other than Debussy's groundbreaking Pelleas et Mélisande, the pickings are slim. By comparison, Massenet produced twice as many operas as all of them combined and today at least three — Manon, Werther, Thaïs — are regularly staged around the world.

Below are a few highlights from Decca's 23-CD set, which includes eight of Massenet's 30-some operas, plus ballet music, songs, arias and a few historic recordings (the dates of which are mysteriously absent).

Although the recordings of Werther and Manon wouldn't be my desert island choices, there is an abundance of delicious opera in this set, including Renée Fleming's star turn in Thaïs, Joan Sutherland's stratospheric high notes in the exotic Esclarmonde and sweet comic timing between Nicolai Ghiaurov, in the title role of Don Quichotte and his sidekick Gabriel Bacquier as Sancho Panza.

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Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.