Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Grisélidis - Massenet
An Opera by Jules Massenet
Massenets "Griselidis," a lyric tale in three acts and a prologue, poem by Armand Silvestre and Eugène Morand based on the "Mystery" in free verse by the same authors, produced at the Comédie Française, Paris, May 15, 1891, was given frot he first time in America, January 19, 1910, at the Manhattan Opera House, New York. The story of the patient Griselda has been handed down to posterity by Boccacio in the Decameron, 10th day, 10th novel, and by Chaucer, who learned it, he said from Petrarch at Padua, and then put in into the mouth of the Clerk of Oxenforde.
The old ballad of "Patient Grissell" begins thus:
A noble marquess
As he did ride -- a-hunting
Hard by a forest side,
A fair and comely maiden,
As she did sit a-spinning,
His gentle eye espied.
Most fair and lovely
And full or comely grace was she,
Although in simple attire,
She sang most sweetly,
With pleasant voice melodiously,
Which set the lords heart on fire.
An English drama "Patient Grissell" was entered at Stationers" Hall in 1599. The word "Grizel," the proverbial type of a meek and patient wife, crept into the English language through this story. Chaucer wrote:
No wedded man so hardly be tassaille
His wyves patience, in hope to fynde
Grisildes, for in certain he shall fail.
Several operas on this subject were written before Massenets, but the ballet "Griseldis: Les Cinq Sens" by Adam (Paris, 1848), has another story. So too has Flotows comic opera, "Griselda, lesclave du Camoens."
Silvestre and Moraud represented Griselda as tempted by Satan in person that he might win a wager made with the marquis. When the "Mystery" was given in 1891 the cast included Miss Bartet as Griseldis; Coquelin cadet as Le Diable; Silvain as the Marquis de Saluce and A. Lambert, fils, as Alain. It was played at fifty-one consecutive performances. According to Mr. Destranges, Bizet wrote music for a "Griselidis" with a libretto by Sardou, but most of this was destroyed. Only one air is extant, that is the air sung by Micaela in "Carmen." According to the same authority Massenets score lay "en magasin" for nearly ten years. Thus the music antedated that of "Thaïs" (1894), "La Navarraise" (1894), "Sapho" (1897), "Cendrillon" (1899), and it was not performed until 1901.
"Griselidis" was produced at the Opéra Comique, Paris November 20, 1901, with Lucienne Breval, Lucien Fugere, Messrs. Marechal and Dufranne. André Messager conducted. On November 23, 1901, the opera drew the largest receipts known thus far in the history of the Opéra Comique -- 9538 francs.
Mr. Philip Hale tells the story of the opera as follows:
"The scene is in Provence and in the fourteenth century. The Marquis of Saluzzo, strolling about in his domains, met Griselda, a shepherdess, and he loved her at first sight. Her heart was pure; her hair was ebon black; her eyes shone with celestial light. He married her and the boy Loys was born to them. The happy days came to an end, for the marquis was called to the war against the Saracens. Before he set out, he confided to the prior his grief at leaving Griselda. The prior was a Jobs comforter: Let my lord look out for the devil! When husbands are far away, Satan tempts their wives. The Marquis protests for he knew the purity of Griselda; but as he protested he heard a mocking laugh, and he saw at the window an ape-like apparition. It was the devil all in green. The Marquis would drive him away, but the devil proposed a wager: he bet that he would tempt Griselda to her fall, while the Marquis was absent. The Marquis confidently took up the wager, and gave the devil his ring as a pledge. The devil of these librettists had a wife who nagged her spouse, and he in revenge sought to make other husbands unhappy. He began to lay snares for Griselda; he appeared in the disguise of a Byzantine Jew, who came to the castle, leading as a captive, his own wife, Fiamina, and he presented her: This slave belongs to the Marquis. He bids you to receive her, to put her in your place, to serve her, to obey her in all things. Here is his ring." Griselda meekly bowed her head. The devil said to himself that Griselda would now surely seek vengeance on her cruel lord. He brought Alain by a spell to the castle garden at night-Alain, who had so fondly loved Griselda. She met him in and odorous and lonely walk. The threw himself at her feet and made hot love. Griselda thought of her husband who had wounded her to the quick, and was about to throw herself into Alains arms, when her little child appeared. Griselda repulsed Alain, and the devil in his rage bore away the boy, Loys. The devil came again, this time as a corsair, who told her that the pirate chief was enamoured of her beauty; she would regain the child if she would only yield; she would see him if she would go to the vessel. She ran to the ship, but lo! the Marquis, home from the East. And then the devil, in another disguise, spoke foully of Griseldas behavior, and the Marquis was about to believe him, but he saw Griselda and his suspicions faded away. The devil in the capital of a column declared that Loys belonged to him. Foolish devil, who did not heed the patron saint before whom the marquis and Griselda were kneeling. The cross on the altar was bathed in light; the triptych opened; there, at the feet of St. Agnes, was little Loys asleep.
"The opera begins with a prologue which is not to be found in the version played at the Comédie Francaise in 1891. The prologue acquaints up with the hope of the shepherd Alain that he may win Griselda: with the Marquis meeting Griselda as he returns from the chase, his sudden passion for her, his decision to take the young peasant as his wife, the despair of Alain. This prologue, with a fine use of themes that are used in the opera as typical, is described as one of the finest works of Massenet, and even his enemies among the ultra-moderns admit that the instrumentation is prodigiously skilful and truly poetic.
"The first act pictures the oratory of Griselda, and ends with the departure of the Marquis.
"The second act passes before the chateau, on a terrace adorned with three orange trees, with the sea glittering in the distance. It is preceded by an entracte of an idyllic nature. It is in this act that the devil and his wife enter disguised, the former as a slave merchant, the latter as an odalisque. In this act the devil, up to his old tricks, orders the flowers to pour madding perfumes into the air that they may aid in the fall of Griselda. And in this act Alain again woos his beloved, and the devil almost wins his wager.
"The third act is in Griseldas oratory. At the end, when Loys is discovered at the feet of St. Agnes, the retainers rush in and all intone the "Magnificat" and through a window the devil is seen in a hermitage, wearing cloak and hood.
"The passages that have excited the warmest praise are the prologue, Griseldas scene in the first act, LOiseau qui pars à tire-daile, and the quiet ending of the act after the tumult of the departure to the east; in the second act, the prelude, the song, ll partit au printemps, the invocation, and the duet; in the third act, a song from the Marquis, and the final and mystic scene."