MASSENET Le Mage
The magus of the title is Zarâstra, aka Zoroaster; but there’s little resemblance to the character portrayed by Handel and Rameau, and none at all to Mozart’s Sarastro. The setting is in and around Bakhdi (present-day Balkh, in northern Afghanistan). Zarâstra, a Persian general, has defeated the Turanians in battle. Their queen, Anahita, accepts and returns his love after initially rejecting it because of the enmity between their peoples; but the celebrations are interrupted by Amrou and his daughter Varedha, whose claim that Zarâstra is already betrothed is believed by all present, including Anahita. Banished, Zarâstra becomes a magus, worshipping Ahura Mazda, god of fire. Goaded by Varedha, he returns to Bakhdi to find the city destroyed by the resurgent Turanians. The Persian king, who was on the point of marrying the unwilling Anahita, is dead, as is the high priest Amrou. Varadha, mortally wounded, calls down fire from her goddess, Djahi; but Zarâstra prays to Ahura Mazda and the reunited lovers are saved.
Le mage was staged at the Paris Opéra in 1891. With a run of more than 30 performances between March and October, it was the kind of failure that any modern composer would welcome. But interest lapsed after a revival at The Hague in 1896, and this is the opera’s first recording. With the hero as a general and the heroine an enemy queen as two-thirds of a love triangle, the similarity to Aida is evident. And although the dramatic situation is different, the scene for Varedha and Amrou in Act 2 is very reminiscent of the duet for Aida and Amonasro. I would add that Zarâstra’s epiphany in Act 3 is a rip-off of ‘Arrêtez, ô mes frères’ in Samson et Dalila, were it not that Le mage was composed in 1889 and Saint-Saëns’s opera didn’t reach France till 1890 (but perhaps Massenet had studied the score?).
That said, Le mage is well worth hearing. The orchestra plays excellently for Laurent Campellone, who whips up the passion where required but relishes the more sentimental passages too. Catherine Hunold, Kate Aldrich and Jean-François Lapointe give it their all; the disappointment is Luca Lombardo, with his uningratiating tone and wooden phrasing.
Thérèse (Monte Carlo, 1907) is another love triangle; but instead of Bactria, c2500BC, we are near Versailles, then in Paris, at the height of the Terror (Massenet quotes the Marseillaise at one point). Thérèse and her husband André shelter the aristocratic Armand from the revolutionaries. The two men are childhood friends but, unbeknown to André, his wife and Armand are former lovers. After much vacillation (and significant veering from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’ and back) Thérèse agrees to flee with Armand, but finally chooses to join André on the guillotine.
There are echoes of Manon (the chorus of soldiers) and Werther (Armand’s arrival). The scale is small, the plot thin, but the opera has its moments: one of them is the flowing ‘O Thérèse, regarde’, sensitively phrased by Etienne Dupuis. Nora Gubisch and Charles Castronovo are splendid and the Montpellier forces under Alain Altinoglu are a match for their colleagues in Saint-Etienne. The discs come in the pockets of handsome hardbacks containing articles and librettos in French and English.