Last updated
opéra romanesque by Jules Massenet
Original poster for the premiere
Based onmedieval chivalric tale Parthénopéus de Blois
15 May 1889 (1889-05-15)

Esclarmonde (French pronunciation:  [ɛsklaʁmɔ̃d] ) is an opéra (French : opéra romanesque) in four acts and eight tableaux, with prologue and epilogue, by Jules Massenet, to a French libretto by Alfred Blau and Louis Ferdinand de Gramont. It was first performed on 15 May 1889 by the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet in Paris.


Esclarmonde is perhaps Massenet's most ambitious work for the stage and is his most Wagnerian in style and scope. [lower-alpha 1] In orchestral coloring and structure of melody, however, it follows French traditions. The opera has been revived sporadically in the modern era, most notably during the 1970s with Joan Sutherland, conducted by Massenet champion Richard Bonynge. The role of Esclarmonde is notoriously difficult to sing, with stratospheric coloratura passages that are possible for only the most gifted of performers.


The story of the opera is based on the medieval chivalric tale Parthénopéus de Blois , [1] which was written in the middle of the 12th century by Denis Pyramus. In the original tale, however, the protagonist sorceress is called "Melior"; Esclarmonde's name was borrowed from another chanson de geste of the 13th century: Huon de Bordeaux . Although the Esclarmonde who appears in Huon is completely different from her operatic counterpart, Huon clearly served as the basis of at least part of the opera's libretto. Alfred Blau discovered Parthénopéus in 1871 in the library of Blois, where he took refuge during the time of the Paris Commune. The libretto was originally called Pertinax; it was first drafted in prose and later versified by Blau's collaborator, Louis de Gramont. In that form – a romantic melodrama in five acts – it was offered in 1882 to the Belgian composer François-Auguste Gevaert, who, however, declined to set it. Soon the libretto found its way into Massenet's hands, though the precise circumstances in which this occurred remain a mystery.

On 1 August 1886, Massenet and his publisher Georges Hartmann attended a performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, an event which deeply impressed the composer and had a significant influence on his music. He had already seen the entire Ring cycle when it was produced in Brussels in 1883.

In his Memoirs, which were compiled in 1911 near the end of his life, [2] Massenet ascribes the creation of the role of Esclarmonde to a chance meeting with Sibyl Sanderson sometime in the spring of 1887. He recounts how he was astonished by the range and capacity of her voice, realizing at once that she was the perfect choice for the heroine of his new opera, which he had begun to compose at the end of 1886. It is almost certain, however, that he had received the libretto to Esclarmonde much earlier than that, [3] and the meeting with Sybil Sanderson served rather as an additional catalyst – a stimulus to complete the opera. The work was commissioned as a spectacular event to open the Paris Exposition of 1889. During the most intensive period of creation in the summer of 1887, Massenet moved into the Grand Hotel in Vevey, where Miss Sanderson was also staying; there he rehearsed with her each evening the various sections of his new opera as he composed them. The opera was completed by the end of 1888, and stage rehearsals started at Opéra-Comique. Massenet dedicated the work to Sybil Sanderson in gratitude, allowing her signature to stand alongside his own in the manuscript of the score. Rodney Milnes suggests that Massenet's "passion for his leading lady resulted in some of his most chromatically tortuous erotic writing" while observing that the operatic events are "dispatched in just over two hours of music". [1] Crichton notes also the skill of Massenet in writing for male voices - both the tenors Roland and Énéas, but also for the Bishop, the Emperor Phorcas and the King. He also points to the scoring of low instruments, where the bass clarinet and tuba show "an individual application of lessons well learned from the later parts of The Ring, used with a discretion unlikely to upset the general public of the day". [4]

Seven black and white projections for the scenes of sorcery, using the magic lantern technology, were created by Eugène Grasset, who also illustrated the original vocal score. [5]

After a very successful initial run, however, the opera disappeared from the repertoire and fell into almost complete oblivion. Soon afterwards Sybil Sanderson fell ill. When she died around the start of the 20th century, it seems that Massenet himself lost interest in the opera he had written for her and he discouraged any further productions. The work was not revived until 1923, well after the composer's death. Some short-lived revivals then followed, either staged or in concert performance. It was only in the 1970s that the efforts of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland brought Esclarmonde back to life. Since then the work has been performed more frequently.

Performance history

Listing below are partially based on (extracted from) Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Esclarmonde" . L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).

Within the next few years performances in France took place in Bordeaux (with Mme. Georgette Bréjean-Silver aka Bréjean-Graviére), and Lyon (with Alice Verlet, and Mlle. Marie Vuillaume).


RoleVoice type [24] Premiere Cast, May 15, 1889 [25]
(Conductor: Jules Danbé)
Esclarmonde, [lower-alpha 2] daughter of the Emperor soprano Sibyl Sanderson
Parséїs, her sister mezzo-soprano Jeanne Nardi
Roland, Count of Blois tenor Frédéric-Étienne Gibert
Énéas, Byzantine knight, fiancé of ParséїstenorGustave Prosper Herbert
The Bishop of Blois baritone Max Bouvet
Phorcas, Emperor of Byzantium, father of Esclarmonde and Parséїs bass-baritone Émile-Alexandre Taskin
Cléomer, King of FrancebaritoneMarcel Boudouresque
Saracen envoytenor Étienne Troy
Byzantine heraldtenorPierre Cornubert
Nobles, Knights, Guards, Monks, Priests and Penitents, Warriors, Virgins, Children, Spirits,
Courtiers, Populace; (Ballet) Spirits of forest, water, fire and air, Nymphs.


The story is based on a medieval legend and revolves around Esclarmonde, an empress and sorceress of Byzantium. Sequestered by her emperor father, Phorcas, who has recently abdicated the throne to her, she bemoans her love for Roland, a knight and Count of Blois, believing she will never be allowed to be with him. Following a suggestion from her sister, Parséïs, Esclarmonde uses her magic powers to transfer Roland to the magic island where she joins him and continues to do so on a nightly basis and, hiding behind a veil, never reveals her identity. She reveals to him also that his country is in danger, attacked and besieged by the Saracens, and grants him a magic sword with which he will be capable of defeating the enemy. It will serve him well as long as he will remain faithful to her.

Roland then goes to help the besieged Blois and wins the battle with the leader of the Saracens. In reward, he is granted by the king of France the hand of his royal daughter. But Roland refuses to accept that offer not disclosing the reason. When he finally confesses his nightly tryst to the Bishop of Blois, the bishop and a group of monks intervene on Esclarmonde's arrival, performing an exorcism and in a crucial moment manage to tear off her veil and thus reveal her identity. Feeling betrayed, Esclarmonde, in her bravura aria Ah Roland, tu m'as trahie, et me voilà... Regarde-les ces yeux, rebukes Roland for his faithlessness. The confrontation scene proceeds with Roland trying at the last moment to use his sword to defend her from the monks. Suddenly, the magic sword shatters to pieces, and Esclarmonde, surrounding herself with a ring of fire and demons, curses Roland and disappears.

The ex-emperor, Phorcas, upon hearing of Esclarmonde's disobedience, summons her to him and insists she renounce Roland. He threatens to remove her magic powers and to execute Roland. Reluctantly, she submits and when Roland is brought before her she implores him to forget her. A tournament takes place to award the victor with Esclarmonde's hand in marriage. When the winner, clad all in black, is asked his name, he replies "despair", and refuses the hand of Esclarmonde. Esclarmonde recognizes the voice immediately, however, as that of Roland, and when her veil is lifted he recognizes her as well and all hail the new empress and her valiant consort.


A studio recording by Decca was made on 2–15 July 1975 at the Kingsway Hall, London, with Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Huguette Tourangeau (Parséis), Clifford Grant (Phorcas), Giacomo Aragall (Roland), Louis Quilico (The Bishop of Blois), Ryland Davies (Enéas), Robert Lloyd (Cléomer), Finchley Children's Music Group, John Alldis Choir, National Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Richard Bonynge. Decca. 475-7914 (3 CDs). ADD STEREO STUDIO. [27]

In addition, recordings of live performances have been made available:

In 1920 Maria Kousnezoff recorded "Regarde-les, ces yeux" (Act 3) with orchestra, on Pathé saphir 80t 2024. [30]



  1. To describe it as Wagnerian is a little overstatement. Leitmotivs are clear and distinct, "Wagner-like", but beyond some melodic or harmonic resemblance to ones used by Wagner (particularly in his Tristan und Isolde , Das Rheingold , or Götterdämmerung ), they are nevertheless very original. Unlike in Wagner, and in so many other composers, there is no tragedy, death or self-sacrifice involved.
  2. Upton describes one of Esclarmonde's arias in the third act as "extremely brilliant and difficult, making exacting demands upon the voice." In Act 3, for instance, are some numerous moments requiring voice range, as written, from the middle C up to top G (over top C). Even though Massenet himself allowed some "scale down" on the highest note used (from G6 to "only" E6), still it is higher than average soprano can go. Moreover, long lasting legato, jumps from high register to the low (with full dynamic range), trills and staccato on high notes, make all that role unusually difficult and taxing for average soprano to sing. [26]

Related Research Articles

<i>Werther</i> 1892 opera by Jules Massenet

Werther is an opera in four acts by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann. It is loosely based on Goethe's epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was based both on fact and on Goethe's own early life. Earlier examples of operas using the story were made by Kreutzer (1792) and Pucitta (1802).

Jules Massenet French composer (1842–1912)

Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet was a French composer of the Romantic era best known for his operas, of which he wrote more than thirty. The two most frequently staged are Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). He also composed oratorios, ballets, orchestral works, incidental music, piano pieces, songs and other music.

Joan Sutherland Australian soprano

Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, was an Australian dramatic coloratura soprano known for her contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.

Sherrill Milnes American opera singer

Sherrill Milnes is an American dramatic baritone most famous for his Verdi roles. From 1965 until 1997 he was associated with the Metropolitan Opera. His voice is a high dramatic baritone, combining good legato with an incisive rhythmic style. By 1965 he had made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. His international debuts followed soon thereafter, and Milnes became one of the world's prominent Verdi baritones of the 1970s and 1980s.

Richard Bonynge Australian conductor and pianist

Richard Alan Bonynge is an Australian conductor and pianist. He is the widower of Australian dramatic coloratura soprano Dame Joan Sutherland. Bonynge conducted virtually all of Sutherland's operatic performances from 1962 until her retirement in 1990.

Louis Quilico Canadian opera singer (1925–2000)

Louis Quilico, was a Canadian opera singer. One of the leading dramatic baritones of his day, he was an ideal interpreter of the great Italian and French composers, especially Giuseppe Verdi. He was often referred to as "Mr Rigoletto" in reference to the Verdi opera. During his 45-year-long career he shared performing credits with opera's greatest stars. He spent 25 consecutive years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. After his retirement from the stage in 1998 he continued to perform and record, most often with his second wife, pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico,, with whom he made four CDs. The couple also toured together extensively in concerts until Quilico's death in 2000. Quilico received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, Canada's highest honour in the performing arts, in November 1999 for his lifetime contribution to classical music.

<i>Manon Lescaut</i> (Auber) Opera by Daniel Auber

Manon Lescaut is an opera or opéra comique in three acts by Daniel Auber to a libretto by Eugène Scribe, and, like Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Massenet's Manon, is based on the Abbé Prévost's novel Manon Lescaut (1731). Auber's version is nowadays the least-performed of the three.

<i>Cendrillon</i> Opera in four acts by Jules Massenet based on Perraults 1698 version of the Cinderella fairy tale

Cendrillon (Cinderella) is an opera—described as a "fairy tale"—in four acts by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Henri Caïn based on Perrault's 1698 version of the Cinderella fairy tale.

Fanny Heldy

Fanny Heldy was a Belgian lyric soprano opera singer.

Giacomo Aragall Spanish operatic tenor

Jaume Aragall i Garriga, better known as Giacomo Aragall, is a Spanish operatic tenor. He became known for his role singing Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème in the late 1960s, and it would become one of the most frequently performed of his career. In 1994 he founded the Giacomo Aragall International Singing Competition.

<i>Le jongleur de Notre-Dame</i> Opera by Jules Massenet

Le jongleur de Notre-Dame is a three-act opera by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Maurice Léna. It was first performed at the Opéra Garnier in Monte Carlo on 18 February 1902. It is one of five operas Massenet set in the Middle Ages, the others being Le Cid (1885), Esclarmonde (1889), Grisélidis (1901), and Panurge (1913).

<i>Le domino noir</i> Opera by Daniel Auber

Le domino noir is an opéra comique by the French composer Daniel Auber, first performed on 2 December 1837 by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle de la Bourse in Paris. The libretto to the three-act piece is by Auber's usual collaborator, Eugène Scribe. It was one of Auber's most successful works, clocking up 1,207 performances by 1909. It received its UK premiere in 1838 and appeared in the USA the following year. Some of Auber's music has a Spanish flavour to reflect its setting.

Huguette Tourangeau Canadian mezzo-soprano.

Huguette Tourangeau, was a French-Canadian operatic mezzo-soprano, particularly associated with the French and Italian repertories.

Sibyl Sanderson American operatic soprano

Sibyl Sanderson was a famous American operatic soprano during the Parisian Belle Époque.

Jacqueline Brumaire was a French operatic soprano and later teacher.

Isobel Buchanan is a Scottish operatic soprano.

Louis de Gramont

Louis Ferdinand de Gramont was a French journalist, dramatist, and librettist. He was a son of Ferdinand de Gramont.

Jules Danbé

Jules Danbé was a French violinist, composer and conductor, mainly of opera.

Émile-Alexandre Taskin French opera singer

Émile-Alexandre Taskin, born in Paris on 18 March 1853, and died there on 5 October 1897, was a French operatic baritone mainly active at the Paris Opéra-Comique. He was a descendant of the harpsichord maker Pascal Taskin (1723–1793).

Philip Booth is an American operatic bass who is chiefly associated with the basso profundo repertoire. Now retired from performance, he was particularly active with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City where he gave more than 400 performances from 1975–1995.


  1. 1 2 Milnes, Rodney. Esclarmonde. In : The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Sadie, Stanley. Macmillan, London & New York, 1997.
  2. Massenet, Jules (1970). My Recollections. New York: Greenwood Reprinting. pp. 176–183. ISBN   0-404-04229-5.
  3. Ira, Siff. "Archival Instincts: Interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge". Opera News, October 2005, vol. 70, no. 4.
  4. Crichton, Ronald. 'Mireille' and 'Esclarmonde'. Opera, December 1983, Vol.34 No.12, p1293-99.
  5. Massenet et l'Opéra-Comique - Actes de la journée d'études de l'Opéra Comique, 8 décembre 2012, Université Jean Monnet-Opéra Comique (eds. Jean-Christophe Branger & Agnès Terrier. Université de Saint-Étienne, 2015, p193.
  6. Wild & Charlton 2005, pp. 95, 240.
  7. "Sybil Sanderson's Triumph" (PDF). New York Times. 16 May 1889.
  8. "Miss Sanderson in Massenet's opera" (PDF). New York Times. June 1, 1889.
  9. O'Neills, Patrick B. "Sybil Sanderson was called before the curtain 40 times at St. Petersburg recently, where she sang Esclarmonde". Reference in Acadian Recorder, March 10, 1892. Halifax, NS, Newspapers.
  10. Although the Metropolitan Opera planned originally to show Esclarmonde during the 1890–91 season, that plan never materialized. For reference see Amusements, New York Times, August 3, 1890
  11. Notes on Esclarmonde premiere in 1889 and 1944 at La Monnaie
  12. SFopera Archives – document on all performances of Esclarmonde
  13. The Met premiere of Esclarmonde with Review
  14. "Royal Opera House Collections Online".
  15. Milnes, Rodney. Report from Turin. Opera , March 1993, Vol.43 No.3 p344-346.
  16. 1 2 Pugliaro, G. (1993). Opera '93. Annuario dell'opera lirica in Italia. ISBN   9788870631821.
  17. Gualerzi, Giorgio. Report from Turin. Opera, March 1993, Vol.43 No.3 p346.
  18. "Chelsea Opera Group".
  19. "Celena Shafer Profile". Archived from the original on 2006-10-16. Retrieved 2008-09-01.
  20. "Ionarts".
  21. "Ionarts".
  22. "Demanding 'Esclarmonde' Gets Vigorous, if Dubious, Workout".
  23. Fath, Rolf. Report from Dessau. Opera, November 2013, Vol.64 No.11 p1428.
  24. "Esclarmonde – Grisélidis", L'Avant-Scène Opéra, No 148, Sept-Oct 1992, p21 for cast and voice types.
  25. Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Esclarmonde, 15 May 1889" . L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  26. Upton, George P.; Borowski, Felix (1928). The Standard Opera Guide. New York: Blue Ribbon Books. pp. 181–83.
  27. "Opera Today".
  28. See Stereophonic sound
  29. World Cat entry for Esclarmonde conducted by Patrick Fournillier accessed 12 July 2019.
  30. Art-Lyrique website 'Esclarmonde' page, accessed 20 July 2019. (The singer later married Massenet's nephew Alfred.)
  31. Carter, Stewart (1999). Brass Scholarship in Review. Paris: Pendragon Press. p. 138. ISBN   978-1-57647-105-0.