Techniques | Harems, Despots & Sex-Slaves | Turn of the Century | Opera
Massenet delighted in the nineteenth-century penchant for the oriental more than any other operatic composer. Following Meyerbeer in L’africaine, Berlioz in Les Troyens and the little-known Ferdinand David, who plundered Eastern techniques and themes in several of his works, Massenet first began to use pastiches of oriental musical techniques by imitating the inflections of North African and Arabic music, although ultimately remaining within the confines of Western music.
Massenet’s first opera on an oriental theme was Le roi de Lahore, first staged in 1877. It employs large-scale scenes in the style of Meyerbeer, which, musically, use slightly odd Western techniques to evoke the Indian setting. But it does have a mélodie hindoue for flute, using an oriental scale and free-rhythmic, improvisatory gestures. It foreshadows the style of the incantation from Act II of Delibes’ Lakmé, which would be premiered in 1883, although as yet Massenet does not go as far as Delibes in invoking the orient through pastiche. Hérodiade, first given in 1881, goes much further, and was fuelled by the international success of Le roi de Lahore. Here there are exotic touches of orchestration throughout and pastiche oriental dances are introduced several times with great effect. A religious scene uses the music of a Jewish cantor. Contrasted with all this is his sensual, curvaceous and lushly harmonized music of seduction. A remarkable scene occurs where sex-slaves comfort the despotic Herod with a drink-drugs cocktail.
Similar oriental music occurs in Thaïs, an opera that directly opposes Christian renunciation with oriental excess. Thaïs, a courtesan in love with Athanaël, a Christian monk, has music that is in Massenet’s richest style, but her confidantes, and the various entertainments that pervade the opera, considerably heighten the oriental setting with devices similar to those employed in Hérodiade.
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