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date: 15 November 2019


  • Rodney Milnes


Opéra romanesque in four acts by Jules Massenet to a libretto by Alfred Blau and Louis de Gramont after Parthenopoeus de Blois, a medieval chanson de geste; Paris, Opéra-Comique (Théâtre Lyrique), 14 May 1889.

The opera was composed in Massenet’s middle period, immediately after Werther. It was written for the Californian soprano Sibyl Sanderson (1865–1903), with whom he was infatuated; its exploitation of her remarkable range (up to g‴) and agility, allied to considerable weight of tone, has made revivals comparatively rare. After a flurry of productions in the 1890s, it has been revived in this century notably for Fanny Heldy (1923, Paris) and Joan Sutherland (1974, San Francisco, in a production later seen at the Metropolitan and Covent Garden in 1976 and 1983 respectively).

The setting is the legendary Middle Ages. The Emperor of Byzantium, Phorcas (bass), abdicates in favour of his daughter Esclarmonde (soprano) and bequeaths her his magic powers; to preserve them she must remain veiled until she comes of age, when she and her throne will be won by the victor in a tournament. Esclarmonde loves the knight Roland de Blois (tenor), whom she has glimpsed from afar, and by magic transports him to an enchanted island where they pursue a passionate but anonymous affair (Roland is allowed neither to see her face nor know her name). When Esclarmonde has a vision of the King of France besieged in Blois by the Saracens, she dispatches Roland, gives him a magic sword, and promises to visit him nightly wherever he may be....

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