Odyssey Opera’s Triumphant Boston Premiere of Massenet’s Le Cid

Nélida Nassar   03.10.15

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Originally presented in 1885 at the Paris Opera, Jules Massenet’s Le Cid was staged there regularly until 1919 before gradually falling into oblivion — with the exception Chimène’s aria “Pleurez mes yeux” (Weep my eyes) and those of Rodrigue, which soloists often included in their programs. Nevertheless, the score has many very beautiful pages, in particular the whole of the third act. Aside from the scene that takes place on the battlefield, the libretto follows Corneille’s play quite closely, incorporating a number of famous verses, such as “Ô rage, ô désespoir” (O rage, O despair ) and “Percé jusques au fond du Coeur(Pierced to the bottom of the heart),  along with less inspiring, not to say insipid verses which may have led to the work’s long disappearance. Le Cid enjoyed a renewal during the 1970s thanks to Placido Domingo, who performed it several times and also recorded it.

After an absence of almost a century, the return of Le Cid to the French repertory constituted a notable event in 2015. In September of that same year, Odyssey Opera of Boston, under maestro Gil Rose, gave it its Boston premiere at Jordan Hall in a concert version (i.e. without the requisite sets and costumes). The work is a large one in terms of both the number of performers and duration, clocking in at 3 3/4 hours with only one intermission. An onstage orchestra of 74 players, supplemented by 10 offstage brass instruments, and a full chorus of  62, could barely be accommodated on the stage at Jordan Hall,  with just enough room along its front strip for the nine singers in the solo roles.

Right from the overture, the orchestra showed itself to be world class, with the brass section displaying particular virtuosity, and the singers conveyed the text with admirable clarity, despite the few cuts made here and there in the libretto. Rose showed a shrew sense for theatrical timing, moving the work along briskly, especially during the military sections, and allowing the lyrical passages ample room to unfold and expand. The choreography, it should also be noted, was meticulously crafted.

Baritone Michael Chioldi brought great nobility and authority to the role of the king. His voice was silvery and his diction impeccable, as was that of the rest of the male cast. Bass-baritone Oren Gradus portrayed Don Diègue, the elderly father of Rodrigue, as a man of great austerity in whom the sense of honor prevails over paternal love, as can be heard in his aria “O rage! O désespoir!” which is delivered with restrained anger. Then, when he believes that his son is dead, he succumbs to a truly poignant despair in the aria “Il a fait noblement ce que l’honneur conseille” (He did nobly what honor advises). Indeed, he seemed almost too vigorous for an aging knight no longer able to defend himself from a slur on his honor.

Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter’s large, well-rounded voice allowed him to successfully project the arrogant Comte of Gormas, who provoked the duel of honor by insulting Rodrigue’s father leading to his own death. Baritone Robert Honeysucker is haughty yet agile in his touching role as Saint Jacques, the patron saint of Spain; he appears in the balcony of Jordan Hall in response to Rodrigue’s prayer before the battle on behalf of the leader Boabdil. Tenor Ethan Bremner played Don Aria and bass-baritone David Salsbery Fry performed two roles Don Alonzo and L’Envoyé Maure as brave, loyal courtiers and soldiers in the opening scenes; both gave remarkably good performances.

Eleni Calenos was enchanting as the Infanta, who, keenly aware of her high status, chooses not to compete for the man she loves. Her voice retained its freshness and her high notes their luminosity throughout the evening, and she managed to give a certain gravitas to this character. In her first act duet with Chimène, sung by soprano Tamara Mancini, she voices her resignation in a touching and dignified way. Mancini skillfully confronted the formidable vocal range of her role, although occasionally her high notes were too loud, close to a scream. In her aria “Pleurez mes yeux” (Weep My Eyes ) she manages to convey sufficient nuance and to express her character’s torment with great sincerity.

The great triumph of the evening belonged to Paul Groves. For the powerful character of Rodrigue, the score requires a range encompassing both the lyric tenor to the heroic tenor. He succeeded in adapting the role to his voice and talents (without transposing, as did Domingo) and in embodying a character at once valorous and fragile; here we was well served by his youthful look. His solid and powerful instrument allowed him to cope well with the massive sound unleashed by maestro Rose in the rather confined acoustics of Jordan Hall especially when he clashed with the orchestral wall erected by the maestro. He was at his best in “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père, (O sovereign, O judge, O father), while “Ô noble lame étincelante” (O noble sparkling blade) seemed to shake him a little bit, this aria being conducted at full speed and requiring from him maximum volume. Overall, Groves convincingly portrayed a character of great stature, worthy of the Cornelian model.

Gil Rose did not hesitate to emphasize the ingratiating aspect of the score, particularly in the first two acts, even if it meant reducing the audibility of certain singers or forcing them to push their voices in the face of an avalanche of decibels. In the third and fourth acts he emphasized emotion, as witnessed in Chimène’s aria, where he showed great restraint, or in the solemnity with which he approached Rodrigo’s great scene, “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père.” All in all, this was a triumphant performance and acknowledged as such by the audience’s resounding applause.

Odyssey Opera Orchestra
Gil Rose, Conductor
Rodrigue: Paul Groves
Chimène: Tamara Mancini
Don Diègue: Oren Gradus
Le Roi: Michael Chioldi
L’Infante: Eleni Calenos
Le Comte de Gormas: Kristopher Irmiter
St. Jacques: Robert Honeysucker
Don Alonzo/L’Envoyé Maure: David Salsbery Fry
Don Arias: Ethan Bremner