If Massenet had been British or American, his entire opus – more than 30 operas – would have been regularly combed through as a matter of national pride; but this is France, which often likes to look down on its composers. Performances of Cléopâtre – his last opera, which was first performed in 1914, two years after his death – have been very rare. This is the first staging in France since the St Etienne festival revived it in 1990, an event recorded for CD.
Cléopâtre may not be one of Massenet’s strongest pieces but it shows the composer refining his technique to its bare essentials, cramming a good deal of material into four short acts while maintaining the dramatic flow. Sometimes his legendary concision goes too far – it takes only a few bars for Mark Antony to switch from outright hostility to Cleopatra to head-over-heels infatuation – but that is the only real hiccup in two hours of music. And if there is little for the working classes to hum – a famously stuck-up criticism of Massenet’s style during his lifetime – this only shines even more light on his remarkable word setting.
The best that could be said about Charles Roubaud’s very traditional togas-and-sandals staging is that he knows how to move a chorus around. The entire budget appears to have gone on Katia Duflot’s superb costumes while Emmanuelle Favre’s sets are simply cardboard screens for Marie-Jeanne Gauthé’s fuzzy, kitsch projections of antique domains – flickering wall torches and gushing garden fountains. If the intention was to recreate a B-film atmosphere, the team has succeeded – only Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr are missing – but such basic video work is rather disloyal to the lofty intentions of Massenet’s drame passionel.
The cast is dominated by Jean-François Lapointe’s world-class Mark Antony – supreme stage confidence, exactly the right mix of surface machismo and underlying fragility and a handsome, robust baritone. Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s imperious Cleopatra is best at grief and fury but is equally hectoring in tone when she is meant to be purring seductively. Kimy McLaren’s Octavia has her moments but tenor Luca Lombardo (Spakos) has lost his bloom.
Lawrence Foster’s competent conducting gets the best out of the house orchestra, whetting our appetite for a deeper look into Massenet’s late works.