There is something to be said for opening with a major statement. For its third year in a row, Odyssey Opera has helped jump-start the fall classical season with an opera of vast proportions. First came a concert performance of Wagner’s early juggernaut “Rienzi,” followed the next year by Korngold’s sweeping “Die Tote Stadt.” This year, on Friday night, the company once more shoehorned a large orchestra and chorus onto the stage of Jordan Hall, this time for a nearly four-hour traversal of Massenet’s sumptuously scored grand opera “Le Cid.”
In keeping with Odyssey’s commitment to spotlighting unduly neglected works from the margins of the repertoire, “Le Cid” is a score more typically heard about than heard. That was not always the case. During his own lifetime, the composer best known for “Manon” and “Werther” (the latter en route to the Boston Lyric Opera later this season) banked a major success with this treatment of the legend of the heroic Spanish warrior known as El Cid. Massenet’s opera, introduced in 1885, enjoyed decades of success but seems to have summarily disappeared after 1919. It has been heard in just a small handful of modern performances in this country. Friday was its Boston premiere.
As Odyssey quickly proved in its robust and involving performance, “Le Cid” is a kaleidoscopic score that deserves a fresh appraisal. Massenet’s orchestral writing is full of invention from the opening bars, and his handling of the plot’s tangled web of conflicting loyalties is masterful. As for why the opera vanished so thoroughly from the repertoire, one can only speculate. These days, the stately genre of grand opera, with its formal conventions and outsize plots, can be a difficult sell for a distractible public, but “Le Cid” disappeared almost a century ago. One might wonder whether the work’s central dramatic tension, pitting as it does the imperatives of an older social order against the dictates of younger hearts, may have had less resonance for French audiences after World War I had itself swept away so many of Europe’s cultural ties to its own long 19th century.
Set in medieval Spain, the work’s libretto (by Louis Gallet, Édouard Blau, and Adolphe d’Ennery) centers on the great love between Rodrigue (Le Cid) and Chimène, a love that is cruelly tested after a feud breaks out between their fathers. Rodrigue is honor-bound to duel on his own father’s behalf, ultimately killing Chimène’s father. She is then honor-bound to call on the king to sentence Rodrigue to death. Both are tortured by their choices. Fate intercedes in the form of a Moorish invasion and the great warrior is sent off to battle, returning with enough glory to cancel his debt and win back the love of Chimène.
Friday’s account, as a concert performance with singers tethered to music stands, seemed to indicate more than fully embody this score’s dramatic thrust. In the title role, Paul Groves took some time to seem fully at ease but overall displayed an abundance of vocal stamina and sweet tenor tone, even if he remained more persuasive in conveying the music’s lyrical imperative than its heroic bearing. Soprano Tamara Mancini threw herself courageously into the role of Chimène. Despite an intermittently brittle quality at the top of her range, she excelled in the heated confrontation scenes, her voice slicing through the large orchestra. Groves and Mancini also made a compelling pair in the poignant Act 3 tableau in which both lament the choices bequeathed to them by their fathers.
A solid cast surrounded the pair at the opera’s center, with Oren Gradus delivering both vocal heft and understated gravitas as Don Diègue, Rodrigue’s father; Michael Chioldi was an elegant and resonant King of Castile; Kristopher Irmiter sang well as Le Comte de Gormas, Chimène’s father; Eleni Calenos displayed a limpid soprano as the king’s daughter, who also loves Rodrigue; Robert Honeysucker made the most of a high-profile cameo, singing from the balcony. David Salsbery Fry and Ethan Bremner rounded out the cast in smaller roles.
The large volunteer chorus (Krishan Oberoi, chorus master) sang with impressive warmth and verve, a few rough patches notwithstanding. But it was the orchestra under the baton of Gil Rose that was the beating heart of this performance, placing on vibrant display much of what is best in this score, including its luxuriously upholstered overture, its supple woodwind writing, and its sparkling dance interludes.
All told, this was a real labor of love for a single night’s performance, but Odyssey has done a meaningful service by enabling this forgotten work to be heard, and allowing an audience to judge for itself whether its obscurity is merited. At the long journey’s end, the immediate ovation, whether directed more toward the company or the opera, sounded an affirmative verdict all its own.
Massenet’s ‘Le Cid’
Presented by Odyssey Opera. Gil Rose, conductor. At Jordan Hall, Friday night