on 21 May 2013
I hope you don't mind if I quote from my review of the Canal Grande recording of this opera:
"Massenet was an enormously successful composer commercially and it is amusing to see how his operas so often showed the influence of popular successes of the time. "La Navarraise" was obviously an attempt to cash in on "Carmen", "Cendrillon" followed "Hansel und Gretel" and I have recently been struck by obvious parallels between Kienzl's 1895 opera "Der Evangelimann" and Massenet's "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame", premiered in 1902. "Therese" dates from 1907. Giordano's enormously successful French Revolution opera, "Andrea Chenier", had first been performed in 1896.
"Therese", then, is probably the most Italianate of Massenet's operas. It is in two highly concentrated acts and is very much in the veristic style although the composer's superior technique lends it a musical sophistication which puts it in a different class from, say, "Cavalleria Rusticana" or "I Pagliacci". There are no extended arias to hold up the action but that is not meant to imply that the opera is without melody. On the contrary, it is one of Massenet's richest scores with one wonderfully lyrical tune after another and the intervening orchestral music derived from them. I must also mention an enormously catchy slow minuet, first heard on the harpsichord (or, in the Orfeo recording, on the strings) and again, at the beginning of Act 2, as a "menuet d'amour". Massenet called "Therese" a "music drama" and the closest parallel, I would say, is with Puccini's 1912 opera "La Fanciulla del West", also very much a music drama. Like so much Puccini, the music of "Therese" is so strong that you can, if you wish, listen to it without concerning yourself with the drama at all. "Therese" is a compelling work, then, which I can confidently recommend.
Andre, son of the steward of a chateau, has grown up with Armand, an aristocrat who has now been forced to flee the Revolution. Andre, then, is torn between his duty to the Revolution and his loyalty to his friend. Andre is married to Therese who, unknown to him, formerly loved Armand. Andre hides his friend in his house. Therese begs him to grant Armand safe conduct and, as the mob outside becomes increasingly vocal, Andre gives him his own papers. Andre is arrested and mounts the tumbril on his way to the guillotine. Choosing not to escape with Armand, Therese embraces her husband's destiny. "Vive le Roi" she cries and joins her husband in death.
"Therese"'s quality has been recognized in recent years and there are now three recordings to choose from and a fourth due soon. "Therese" will also feature in a double bill with "La Navarraise" at Wexford later this year (2013)."
The Orfeo recording, made in 1981 but only issued in 1996, is, on balance, the best sung of the three. Baltsa as Therese has a less distinctive voice than Tourangeau's dark mezzo on Decca but she sings and characterises superbly as does George Fortune as Andre. Araiza is the best Armand on disc, Ryland Davies not being well cast on the Decca recording. You will have to grit your teeth at the beginning of the opera, however, as neither the first nor second soldier is well sung.
If you know this opera from Bonynge's Decca recording you will soon be struck by Gerd Albrecht's very different conception of the piece. Albrecht's speeds are almost always slower (he takes 10 1/2 minutes longer than Bonynge) and he puts far more emphasis on orchestral colour and intensity of expression than do his rivals. This is a very Italianate performance, then. It would probably be less compelling in the theatre but, on disc, it works well. Only occasionally, as, for instance, at Armand's arrival in Act 1, did I feel that the music really needed to be moved on.
"Therese" is one of Massenet's best operas and both Bonynge and Albrecht's recordings can be confidently recommended. For a more intense and emotionally involving experience, I would choose the Orfeo recording but Bonynge's recording, with its faster speeds, is undeniably thrilling. The Canal Grande recording is not well enough sung to be a viable alternative. I haven't heard the new Montpellier recording but, purely judging from its 70 minute timing, I expect that it will be closer in concept to Bonynge's recording than Albrecht's.
The Orfeo recording includes a full French/English/German libretto.