Massenet DVD

Dennis Pryor
The Age (Australia)


Musicians and musical critics are not a harmonious lot. Tooth-aching discords characterise what the English have said about Massenet. Bernard Shaw voids his vegetarian bowels on the operas, and a more recent critic describes his operas as a slushy lot, happily repeating the bitchy description of Massenet as "Gounod's daughter". But unless you suffer from an incurable anti-French prejudice, forget these jaundiced opinions, and look at Massenet: His Life and Music.

This is a masterly piece of film which establishes a standard for the future of music documentaries. The director is Scott Murray, whose Devil in the Flesh has been critically acclaimed both here and in France as sensuous and erotic, precisely the qualities that enrich this documentary.

Early on, the camera looks around Massenet's chateau at Egreville; warmly lit, beautifully furnished, foreshadowing the sumptuous visuals used to depict every stage of his career. But this is not a piece of pretty indulgence. Massenet's career is outlined with clarity and scholarly frankness. Scholarly is a put-down word in the world of television but here it means you can trust the opinions expressed by a wide variety of singers, directors, accompanists and biographers.

The narrator is Richard Bonynge, who appears with Dame Joan Sutherland, who once played Salome in Massenet's Herodias. In Strauss, the Salome was a sex-crazed woman. In Massenet, she is a 15-year-old girl coming to terms with the world she inhabits.

The directorial ingenuities are striking. This could have turned into a catalogue of one opera after another but Scott Murray breaks it up with musical and personal history, showing modern performances, old theatre posters and intimate unhistrionic rehearsals where Bonynge accompanies Rosamund Illing, seated or leaning on the piano - not storming around a stage.

The Paris Conservatoire admitted Massenet at age 10. Like any indigent student (his father had gone bankrupt) he had to make a living. He played in cafes and as a drummer in a theatre orchestra.

This was a powerful apprenticeship, teaching him how the stage worked and the devices that sustain performances. Throughout his career he knew what worked in the theatre and sensibly dropped in every night to check the box-office receipts.

Later in his career Massenet was appointed Professor of Composition in Paris, an appointment which led to a sharp comment from Saint-Saƫns, his rival for the position. Massenet sympathetically wrote to Saint-Saens saying that he considered a grave injustice had been done and received a letter back saying: "I quite agree with you".

An important side of Massenet's work is explored in the comments on his writing for women. Debussy said that in Massenet there was a musical history of the feminine soul. He was regarded as more erotic than Puccini. By the end of the 19th century the place of women was being questioned; Freud was lurking behind the couch as it were, in the shadows of the fin de siecle.

The film discusses a range of women singers and Massenet's musical relationship to them. A long portrait gallery of these singers contrasts with the vanishing world of the belle epoque.

One of the striking scenes from the beginning of gender re-appraisal is the marriage scene from Cendrillon. Cinderella wearing a white bridal dress marries Prince Charming (in the pantomime tradition another woman). He gleams in a bright red costume and the marriage of these two women takes on a new look for 21st century viewers, though John Howard should avoid watching.

Twenty-six operas, 15 piano and orchestral works, four oratorios, 281 songs - it is a remarkable output. Perhaps this film will allow us to see and hear more of Massenet's works.