Jules Massenet Hérodiade Domingo Fleming Zajich Pons GergievJules Massenet – Hérodiade

CAST: Jean: Placido Domingo, Salomé: Renée Fleming, Hérodiade: Dolora Zajick, Hérode: Juan Pons, Phanuel: Kenneth Cox, Vitellius: Hector Vásquez

San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Valery Gergiev, conductor

Sony, 1995

As it happened with Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, the premiere of Jules Massenet’s opera Hérodiade was postponed until 1881 on the grounds of its amorous and biblical subject despite the score was already completed in 1879. The first performance was given in Brussels at the Théâtre de la Monnaie and for the occasion Massenet revised Hérodiade that became an opera in four rather than in three acts as it was originally. This choice made Hérodiade a grandiose but a little unbalanced work prefiguring some of the main themes of Massenet’s later opera Thaïs, as the dichotomy between asceticism and sensuality.

After the premiere, Hérodiade was performed in Milan in 1882 and in Paris in 1884 and was revived in the French capital in 1903, when it reached the record of forty-three performances at the Théâtre Italien. In the course of the century, Hérodiade was not forgotten but nevertheless neglected in favour of Massenet’s other operas as Manon and Werther, as the discography reflects. Apart from the present Hérodiade, until now few others are available, as the those featuring Nadine Denize and Ernest Blanc (recorded in 1974), Montserrat Caballé and Josè Careras (1984) and finally Thomas Hampson and Cheryl Studer (1994). The Hérodiade I am going to review is a partially cut, live recording of a production staged in San Francisco with an exceptional cast (it is enough to mention Placido Domingo as Jean, Renée Fleming as Salome and Dolora Zajick in the title role).

The above-mentioned cuts are probably due to theatrical needs and affect in particular the dances in the fourth act (only two pieces survives of the original five) with the addition of few other passages in the previous acts. The “presence” of the theatre is not limited to this aspect, as many stage sounds are detectable especially in correspondence of the dances.

The persistence of the noise despite the sound improvement to which the recording has been submitted takes me to make a remark about the technical work. This work is not completely blameable only because it is still possible to hear the reverberation of the sound of the orchestra if (and only if) the listener has the shrewdness to turn the volume up, but the voices suffered more and irremediably. It seems that only Domingo and Fleming have come out unharmed, even if sometimes Fleming’s voice has a shrill sound that very likely does not belong to judging by other recordings, while no less sonorous voices as those of Zajick and Juan Pons are irremediably flattened. The only good thing about this mess is that the authoritativeness of the singers is intact and it is therefore possible to hear Renée Fleming’s charming Salomé, of whom it is possible to guess frailty, affection and dejection, Placido Domingo’s energetic and powerful Jean, the intentional coldness of Dolora Zajick’s Hérodiade and the majestic Hérode (despite his passion for Salomé) portrayed by Juan Pons. The fact remains that this is a cold comfort thinking of what has been lost.

What it is possible to determine with certainty despite the technical faults is that Hérodiade give us another excellent performance on Valery Gergiev’s part. The conductor seems really inspired by the complex atmosphere of the opera and leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra accentuating the impression that the music flows endlessly. He also adds his personal touch creating tension and suspance in the first act to reach a lyrical but still dramatic approach in the next ones. The refined, delicate performance of Les Gauloises and the animated Finale makes you regret that this part of the score has been cut.

There are many good sides in this recording of Jules Massenet’s Hérodiade and if the few reasons to complain are not trifling ones, they can be overcome to appreciate the excellent, flawless outcome of the performers that is still recognizable and rightly praised.