As part of the Lammermuir Festival
***** (5 stars)
A love triangle set during the French Revolution, Massenet’s Thérèse centres on the eponymous heroine, torn between her dutiful love for her husband, André, and the romantic love she felt for Armand, Comte de Clerval. André and Armand grew up together on the Clerval estate near Versailles, the former being the steward’s son, the latter heir to the estate.
Led by the Girondin faction, the revolutionaries have deposed and imprisoned the king, Louis XVI. André, one of their leaders, has bought the Clerval estate, from which Armand fled when the revolution began, and now lives there with his wife, Thérèse, whom he has rescued from a life of poverty. She rejoices in their rural seclusion but fears that the growing excesses of the revolution will one day turn against her husband. He is drawn away from home by his duty to his country, but rests secure in the knowledge of her love.
Armand returns from exile and endeavours to re-ignite Thérèse’s love for him, but she refuses to weaken. André finds them together and is delighted to welcome his old friend. He offers him shelter in his home and, when revolutionary soldiers challenge his identity, declares that Armand is his brother, thus ensuring his safety.
Eight months later, the three are in Paris. The king has been executed, and the more extreme Jacobins are gaining power over the more moderate Girondists. André urges Armand to leave – he has obtained a safe-conduct for him. Thérèse begs Armand to leave France, but he refuses to leave without her. She tries to resist the temptation but weakens and agrees to leave with Armand, only to learn that her husband has been arrested. She tells Armand to flee, promising to join him, but when she sees her husband on the way to his execution, feels she must be with him. “Vive le roi!” she shouts from the window – signing her own death warrant.
I find myself comparing Jules Massenet with Stephen Sondheim: both prolific and talented composers with a genius for coming up with totally different sound worlds for each of their compositions. I love Sondheim’s Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and Massenet’s Cendrillon, Werther, Chérubin – and now Thérèse. The music constantly changes, evoking moods, expressing emotions, raising and releasing tension and vividly portraying the turbulent times in which the action takes place. I particularly loved the nostalgic minuet against which Armand reminds Thérèse of their love. Scottish Opera’s orchestra, under the baton of Alexandra Cravero, were simply magnificent – as they always are.
I last heard Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte in 2018, when she sang the part of the villainous Tigrana in Scottish Opera’s Edgar. Tonight’s role was more complicated – I was never totally convinced by her remembered love for Armand, nor that more dutiful relationship with her husband: but that’s possibly the fault of composer and librettist, and the limitations of an opera lasting only seventy minutes. Certainly the singing was superb, and I can’t wait to hear her Carmen later this season.
Tenor Shengzhi Ren, one of Scottish Opera’s most recent Emerging Artists, sang Armand. I saw him in February at the start of the touring company’s spring tour, and was struck then by his rich voice, expressive face, and good comic timing. I was less impressed last night – the sound was rich and round, but some of the top notes were swallowed, his voice didn’t have the ‘ping’ that both Justina Gringyte and Dingle Yandell had in abundance and at times was lost in the swelling orchestral sound. Again, the brevity of the opera didn’t give him much opportunity to be anything much more than a typical tenor seducer, using every weapon he could find to wear down Thérèse’s resistance.
I first saw Dingle Yandell in Jonathan Dove’s Flight some years ago, and was impressed with his vocal quality in his brief appearance as the Immigration Officer. He seems to have become a regular – for which, hoorah! – and his latest appearance as André confirmed the power, resonance and expressive nature of his voice. Massenet gives André a constant stream of noble emotions to pour out – love for his wife, passion for his country, and heroically fraternal love for his boyhood friend who he knows also loved Thérèse. Dingle Yandell gave us all these and much, much more in a glorious outpouring of sound that filled St Mary’s church and made the rafters ring.
The staging by Roxana Haines was simple but effective. The action took place on a raised platform, meaning everyone could see – and prefiguring the steps to the scaffold that overshadow the final scene. The cast were all in black and the action simple. The chorus of revolutionaries added both to the menace and the sorrow for lives lost ‘for the cause’ as yet again a movement hoping for reform produces a terror-filled bloodbath.
Stuart Stratford, Scottish Opera’s music director, has a genius for finding little-known and rarely-performed operas, and with Thérèse he’s done it again. Selfishly, I’m profoundly grateful that the performance wasn’t cancelled following the death of the Queen, whose passing we marked with a minute’s silence followed by the orchestra playing the national anthem.
Thérèse, Scottish Opera, St Mary’s Church, Haddington, Run Ended