Massenet DVD

Anna King Murdoch
The Age (Australia)


IF IT WERE not for the Australian conductor Richard Bonynge, some of the most beautiful music of the French composer Jules Massenet would hardly be heard.

Bonynge has been championing Massenet's music for at least 30 years. He encouraged the music producer Maria Vandamme to make an all Australian recording of Massenet's sacred and profane arias with the soprano Rosamund Illing and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, which was released this year by Melba Recordings.

That led to Vandamme's television documentary - the only one ever made on the composer who gave such pleasure in his time with his 26 sensuous end-of-century operas, including the famous Manon - directed by another Australian, Scott Murray.

"He was the most prolific and popular composer working in his time (1842-1912) in Paris; the absolute star composer," says Vandamme.

Massenet derived his success from not only being a master tunemaker with a unerring sense of theatre, but from being "a real operator who knew how to butter up the public and the press." But, by the end of World War I, French society and tastes had changed. Massenet's music was felt to be lightweight and his themes of social decay and political corruption were no longer so relevant.

Debussy once said of Massenet that he "was the musical historian of the feminine soul," but, in his obituary on the composer, he wrote disparagingly that the working classes hummed Massenet's tunes on the way to work and not the high art of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

The French have continued to neglect their composers of this period. Luckily, many talented Australians are helping to revive him. "He is a composer whose music merits re-examination," says Vandamme. "I'm very delighted that Simone Young is interested in Massenet."

And Bonynge, who revived two of his operas in the 1970s with Sutherland performing while he was artistic director of the San Francisco Opera, is the narrator of the film.

Making this 55 minute documentary was the best experience of Vandamme's professional life. Massenet's descendant Anne Bessand-Massenet invited her to stay at the composer's chateau at Egreville, near Fontainebleau, outside Paris. "I was free to look at all the letters, photographs, all his belongings."

Bessand-Massenet was so impressed with Vandamme's film that she offered her all the composer's belongings. "It's a very generous offer but I would like to help her to set up a museum in Paris where he should be honored," Vandamme says.

Despite his wealth and gracious living, Massenet seems to have had a lonely, diligent life, getting up habitually at 4am to compose. "To see all the letters he wrote to his wife was touching. She didn't seem to care for him and spent all her time away. He had this incredible sadness in his life. But how well he writes for women."

The chateau was sold to a rich American. "It should have been bought by the French Government and turned into a music school," she says. "But Madame Bessant-Massenet didn't know how to play the system, unlike her illustrious forebear."

Vandamme's interviewees include Hugues Cuenod, who was born in 1902 and was a great tenor in his time, singing in many of Massenet's operas. He knew the opera composer Charpentier (who wrote Louise), a student of Massenet. She also met Manuel Rosenthal, a composer who was a student of Ravel and Massenet. "It was such a great education in music." Other interviewees include Rodney Milnes, editor of Opera magazine in England, the great American baritone Thomas Hampson and Dame Joan Sutherland.

It was, she says, the first of a number of television documentaries about music by Australians that she wants to make. Her next two projects planned are Barry Humphries presenting a film on the Australian singer Peter Dawson, a world-famous baritone from the 1930s to the '50s; and Kiri Te Kanawa presenting one on Nellie Melba.

"I want to do Australian projects, which are of interest internationally, to showcase our finest musicians overseas," says Vandamme.