Sapho (Massenet)

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pièce lyrique by Jules Massenet
Jean de Paleologu - Jules Massenet - Sapho.jpg
Poster by Jean de Paleologu for the premiere
Based onSapho
by Alphonse Daudet
27 November 1897 (1897-11-27)

Sapho is a pièce lyrique ("lyric play", an opera in a declamatory style) in five acts. The music was composed by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Henri Cain and Arthur Bernède, based on the novel (1884) of the same name by Alphonse Daudet. It was first performed on 27 November 1897 by the Opéra Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet in Paris with Emma Calvé as Fanny Legrand. A charming and effective piece, the success of which is highly dependent on the charisma of its lead soprano, it has never earned a place in the standard operatic repertory. [1]


Performance history

In its first production in 1897 Sapho was presented in a heavily truncated form of four tableaux, due to the limited availability of Calvé, as well as the approaching death of Daudet (who was a close friend of Massenet), and the acting deficiencies of the tenor Leprestre, who was playing the romantic lead role of Jean Gaussin. [2] In this initial run at the Opéra-Comique, the opera received 42 performances. [3]

Marguerite Carre Marguerite Carre - Paul Mejat - Gallica (adjusted).jpg
Marguerite Carré

A revised version, first performed on 22 January 1909 at the Salle Favart, contained a new, sixth scene, added as a second tableau to Act 3. The confrontation at the Ville d'Avray restaurant between Fanny, Jean and Caoudal, now Act 3 sc 1, was shortened, and elements of that added to a scene where Jean goes through Fanny's letters and discovers her past. This revival was produced by Albert Carré with decor by Amable and Lucien Jusseaume and costumes by Félix Fournery, and featured Carré's wife Marguerite Carré, who carried the show. It was revived again on 17 May 1916 and 23 February 1935 and had received a total of 126 representations by the time of its last performance at the Opéra-Comique in 1936. [3]

The opera was first performed outside France on 14 April 1898 in Italian at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. This was followed by performances in 1898 in Geneva and 1899 in Lisbon, Alexandria, Algiers, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Bucharest. It was later given in Antwerp (1901), The Hague (1903), and Brussels (1903). [4]

Mary Garden as Sappho Mary Garden as Sappho - Kobbe 1919 - Google Books.jpg
Mary Garden as Sappho

Beginning on 17 November 1909 the opera was presented in New York by Oscar Hammerstein at his Manhattan Opera House. It was sung in French with the popular Mary Garden as Fanny Legrand, but her performance was considered a disappointment. It was the third Massenet opera to be presented there within a ten-day period, the other two being Hérodiade (also a New York premiere) and Werther . [5]

It was revived in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall on 23 January 1979 with Elisabeth Söderström as Fanny Legrand. Harold C. Schonberg, writing in The New York Times , commented:

It was fun to hear this dated piece, but the chances are that not many impresarios will be rushing to revive it. "Sapho" is, like so many of Massenet's operas, superbly professional. He wrote well for the voice, orchestrated expertly, knew exactly what he was doing. He well knew how to tickle his audience, and could be outrageously sentimental – as he is in the last act of "Sapho," with the solo violin weeping away in the famous Massenet kind of treacle. "Sapho" is a collation, with its quotes (deliberate) from other operas, its touch of folk music, its in-and-out dances, its opportunities for vocal and histrionic display. It is a "vehicle," ... and sopranos must love it. [6]

The opera was also performed at Wexford Festival Opera in 2001 [7] and at the Massenet Festival in Saint-Étienne in 2003 conducted by Laurent Campellone. [8]


RoleVoice typePremiere Cast, [9]
27 November 1897
Jules Danbé)
Revised version [10]
22 January 1909
François Ruhlmann)
Fanny Legrand, an artist's model soprano Emma Calvé Marguerite Carré
Jean Gaussin, a young man tenor Julien Leprestre Thomas Salignac
Irène, his adopted sistersoprano Julia Guiraudon Geneviève Mathieu-Lutz
Divonne, his mother mezzo-soprano Charlotte Wyns Judith Lassalle
Césaire, his father bass André Gresse Jean Delvoye
Caoudal, a sculptor baritone Marc-Nohel Jean Périer
A farmertenor Maurice Jacquet Maurice Cazeneuve
A restaurant ownerbaritoneDufour Hippolyte Belhomme
Chorus: Guests, strolling players, artists, gypsies.


Emma Calve as Sapho (painted by Theobald Chartran) Emma Calve Sapho.jpg
Emma Calvé as Sapho (painted by Théobald Chartran)
Place: Paris
Time: late 19th century

The story concerns the beautiful Sapho, an artist's model of a certain age and notorious life, whose real name is Fanny Legrand. She begins an affair with a young man, Jean Gaussin, but the relationship, as is so often the case in opera, is ill-fated. [11]

Act 1

A fancy ball at Caoudal's studio

Jean Gaussin is a shy and unsophisticated young man from Provence, who has come to Paris to study. At a costume ball given by the sculptor Caoudal, amid the noisy dance music and the mad whirl, the confused Gaussin withdraws and sings of his native country, in a broad and expressive cantabile, one of the few aria-like passages that the opera contains. Fanny, whose fancy is captured by this young man, so strangely different from her friends, promptly makes his acquaintance, and, as the guests are shouting for her to come to supper, takes him away with her.

Act 2

Rooms of Jean Gaussin

Jean Gaussin is in his lodgings, where his parents are installing him as a student. He sings a song, "O Magali, ma tant amado", based on a traditional melody, which Gounod had already used in Mireille . [12] It reappears later and adds a bit of Provençal local colour to the piece. Other than this song and a fragment of his aria from the first act, all is conversation in music, rapid and free declamation over a continually varied orchestral accompaniment.

Gaussin's father and mother and Irène, a "jeune fille," adopted by them, and evidently destined as the wife for Jean, say "good-bye". No sooner are they out the door than Fanny comes in, unannounced, immediately takes possession of Jean and the apartment, and drives out all memory of his parents. Here is more of the conversational style, interrupted by a duet between these two that has the accent of passion.

Act 3

Scene 1: The restaurant at Ville-d'Avray

The lovers are at a little outdoor restaurant near Paris, and still very happy, as they sing together in another duet. There is an artists' dinner at the place, and as the diners arrive there is more lively chorusing and an imitation of a wandering band. By a chance word from Caoudal, Jean learns for the first time that his adored Fanny is none other than Sapho, the notorious model, and he is told something of her past. He is thunderstruck, and when Fanny reappears to join the party, she at once sees what has happened, as Jean turns upon her with rage and leaves. She sings her own rage in music much more declamatory than lyrical, and the scene is suddenly and violently brought to an end.

Scene 2: Fanny and Jean's house at Ville-d'Avray

Jean has returned to their house and finds a box belonging to Fanny containing letters from her past lovers. Fanny has followed him. He forces her to burn the letters after reading them first, learning that she has an illegitimate child whose father is a convicted forger. Finding it increasingly difficult to believe that he is her first and only true love, he brutally rejects her and leaves.

Act 4

At Avignon

Jean has gone back to his parents in Provence. The "Magali" air is heard in the prelude, sung at a distance. Jean has come back to ask forgiveness, which he very promptly obtains from his mother, in a duet. This is followed by an affectionate air sung by Irène. Unexpectedly Sapho appears, with the obvious intention of reclaiming Jean. He receives her coldly and reminds her of her past and the impossibility of his rejoining her. Fanny is defeated in an encounter with his mother and goes away without him.

Act 5

The little house at Ville-d'Avray

The long prelude to this act is titled "Solitude". Fanny is alone in the country lodging they previously shared and is about to leave, when Jean returns. She asks him to go again, but he will not have it, and says he is now ready to sacrifice all that life may hold for him. She promises to stay, but as he falls asleep in his chair, though convinced of his sincerity, she steals away and leaves him.


There are at least three recordings of the complete opera. A recording of a "live performance, London, September 1973" (released on LP c. 1974 by MRF Records, and on CD in 2005 on the Opera D'Oro label) features Milla Andrew as Sapho. A studio recording (released on LP in 1978 by EMI/Pathé Marconi and distributed in the US under the Peters International label; now available on CD) stars Renée Doria as Sapho. David L. Kirk, writing in Fanfare magazine says of the Opera D'Oro recording that "there are no distracting stage or audience noises. I suspect this CD is made from LP records because some surface noise is faintly audible. It is in stereo and the sound is okay." He also says the quality of the two performances is fairly equal, but the sound of the EMI recording is superior. [13] The Wexford Festival performance is also available on CD. [7]

List of productions

Start dateLocation, company, theatre [14] Language
27 November 1897Paris, Opéra-Comique, Théâtre Lyrique French
14 April 1898Milan, Teatro Lirico Italian
25 November 1898 Geneva, Théâtre de NeuveFrench
January 1899 Lisbon, Teatro de San CarlosItalian
13 January 1899 Alexandria, Zizinia TheatreItalian
March 1899 Algiers, Théâtre MunicipalFrench
4 June 1899Buenos-Aires, Teatro Colón Italian
15 August 1899 Rio de Janeiro, Teatro LiricoItalian
21 December 1899Bucharest, Teatrul Național Italian
12 November 1901 Antwerp French
February 1903 The Hague French
3 November 1903Brussels, Théâtre de la Monnaie French
22 January 1909Paris, Opéra-Comique, Salle Favart IIIFrench
17 November 1909New York, Manhattan Opera House [5] French
December 1909Moscow, Bolshoi Theatre Russian
27 December 1913New Orleans, French Opera House French
22 February 1919Barcelona, Liceu French
23 February 1935Paris, Opéra-Comique, Salle Favart IIIFrench
14 March 1967London, St. Pancras Town Hall [15]
23 January 1979New York, Carnegie Hall (concert) [6] French
26 October 2001 Wexford Festival Opera, Theatre Royal [7] French
7 November 2003 Saint-Étienne, Massenet Festival, Grand Théâtre Massenet [8] French

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  1. Milnes 1992, pp. 176–177.
  2. Giroud, Vincent (2004). Branger, Jean-Christophe; Ramaut, Alban (eds.). La naturalisme sur la scène lyrique. Publications de l'Université de Saint-Etienne. p. 152.
  3. 1 2 Milnes 1992, p. 176; Wolff 1953, p. 161; Wild & Charlton 2005, p. 401; Loewenberg 1978, column 1206.
  4. Loewenberg 1978, column 1206.
  5. 1 2 The New York Times (14 November and 18 November 1909).
  6. 1 2 Schonberg 1979.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Review of the Wexford Festival recording in Gramophone (March 2004).
  8. 1 2 Sapho at Saint-Étienne 2003-11-07 "Notice de spectacle" at BnF.
  9. Wolff 1953, p. 161; Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Sapho, 27 November 1897" . L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  10. Wolff 1953, p. 161
  11. The synopsis is partly based on, and quoted from The New York Times (18 November 1909); however, that review describes a performance which lacks the letter scene of Act 3. The synopsis of Act 3 is therefore based on the short summaries in Macdonald 2001, p. 551, and Milnes 1992.
  12. Harding 1970, p. 128.
  13. 1 2 Kirk 2005.
  14. The information in the list of productions is from Loewenberg 1978, column 1206, except as noted.
  15. Macdonald 2001, p. 550.