Massenet at the Apex
Esclarmonde was ready in ample time for the exhibition and went into rehearsal at the end of December 1888. The Opéra administration did not stand idly by while even more tourists than usual flooded the city. As its own exhibition première it had tentatively planned Ascanio, a new work by Saint-Saëns. Though he had completed the opera by September 1888, the death of his mother three months later temporarily pushed Saint-Saëns into a long professional retreat and prolonged absence from Paris. He did not press his case when the Opéra postponed Ascanio because of casting problems. (It would only be staged in 1890.) The house suddenly found it had a spectacular money-maker when Jean de Reszke and Adelina Patti (followed by Nellie Melba and Emma Eames -- its own American!) appeared in a new and lavish production of Gounod Roméo et Juliette, a work it had acquired in 1888 and would carry through 1889. Thomas Hamlet also proved lucrative. In 1889 the Opéra registered its biggest profits of the decade, more than twice as large as the previous maximum.1 And once again Saint-Saëns was eclipsed, now not only by Massenet at the Opéra-Comique but also by an older generation at the Opéra.
The exhibition opened on 6 May and Esclarmonde was premièred nine days later with the President of the Republic in attendance. It went on to 100 performances over the next nine months, on average almost three per week, all with Sanderson. By many accounts the Opéra-Comique mounted its most sumptuous production ever. It was technologically up-to-date too. Recently installed electrical fixtures produced new and startling effects, and this in the same month that some Parisian streets were lit by electricity for the first time. Before the performance the house plunged into total darkness, today a commonplace transition between reality and art, but then a novel method to enhance the glitter of the opening tableau. In the second act electric lights illuminated the great sword of St George from below. A series of magic-lantern projections onto a canvas moon illustrated the symphonic interlude in Act I during which Esclarmonde draws Roland to her.2
Louis Gallet, ever Massenet's supporter, felt that Esclarmonde 'came in a timely manner to confirm to foreigners the vitality and superiority of our national school at a time when other operatic stages [namely the Opéra] . . . seem to want to____________________
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Book title: French Opera at the Fin de Siecle:Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style. Contributors: Steven Huebner - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 102.