Massenet DVD

Martin Hibble
24 Hours Magazine (Australia)

This hour-long video is a companion to the first CD from the new Australian label, Melba [Recordings], the brainchild of former ABC producer and broadcaster, Maria Vandamme. Soprano Rosamund Illing 's acclaimed CD of Massenet's sacred and profane arias called Amoureuse (MR 301080 [now on SACD MR 301106]) contains 19 arias, most of them from little-known operas, with Richard Bonynge conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

Maria Vandamme and Dr Therese Radic have done their research well to provide the basis of this documentary narrated somewhat stiltedly by Richard Bonynge, himself a great champion of Massenet's music. It's rather like having Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians come to life on-screen. We're reminded that Massenet was the most successful and popular composer in Europe during his lifetime (1842-1912), and the composer's great-great grand-niece heads a whole series of commentators extolling his musical virtues, including Thomas Hampson and the distinguished Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuenod, in his late nineties, no less, when he was filmed.

Valuable insights here and from the editor of Opera Magazine, Rodney Milnes, who provides some marvellous annotations with the CD. Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge are there too, on the sofa. When Dame Joan sung Esclarmonde, it was "exciting, exhilarating, the most erotic role I ever sang!" Most of the music heard on the video is naturally taken from the CD of Rosamund Illing and effectively used, but I would have liked a male voice or two sometimes. That only happens in a clip from a 1983 Vienna State Opera of a Ponelle production of Manon, with Edita Gruberova and Francisco Araiza. From an Ottawa production of Cendrillon comes a beautiful scene with Frederica von Stade and Delia Wallis as Prince Charming. Massenet did like his ladies!

26 staged operas, 4 oratorios, 281 songs and around 150 piano and orchestral works add up to a lot of composing. Noel Lee plays a couple of piano works to add some variety. Debate will always go on as to its worth - everyone in this film is at pains to point out its value, of course, including his rather pompous biographer, Dr James Harding who declares that Massenet "is today by no means to be ignored. A master of opera and master of theatre." This video and CD should keep Massenet's candle burning bright.