Massenet, Jules: Sapho
Act 4: “Ces gens que je connais...Pendant un an” (Fanny)
Aria Talk •
Editor's Note: Aria Talk focuses not on the tried-and-true pieces you undoubtedly already know, but on somewhat off-the-beaten-track arias. The hope is that this music will prove a refreshing musical and interpretive change not only for you, the performer, but also for those hearing you in auditions.
If your first aria dazzles with flexibility, range and sheer pizzazz, your listeners will probably then want a complete contrast — intimacy achieved through legato expression. Check out Massenet’s Sapho and voilà, you’ll have a perfect choice. Fanny projects some of the traits characterizing another Massenet heroine, Thaïs: charisma (the Golden Age’s most theatrically vivid diva, Emma Calvé, created the role), worldliness and humor, but also warmth and dignity.
As in La traviata and La rondine, a woman with a past loves an inexperienced young man from the country. Fanny Legrand, an artist’s model of a certain age, is initially successful in making a life with Jean Gaussin in Paris. When his friends let Jean know what Fanny’s life was like before they met, it seems to him so sordid that he bitterly rejects her. The desperate Fanny travels to his family home, where she begs him to return: “I’ll be so sweet and good that your heart will open up and the hand that repels me will tenderly caress me. Only you can ease my suffering. Yield to my love…your mouth could never forget my kiss!”
The aria’s key, D major, helps in maintaining a floating, airborne quality. The legato melody must be sculpted with a sinuous movement from note to note that should ultimately mesmerize the listener. Every word — no, every syllable — should be colored with both affection and allure until the last third of the aria, where the voice opens out and the strength of Fanny’s passion really bursts forth. The demands are considerable: effortless and unimpeded flow of tone, finely sustained high pianissimo, a burningly intense crescendo on the final top A and — as always in Massenet — thoughtful, eloquent shaping of the French language.
Recording: Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur, “Massenet — Rare Scenes and Arias,” Vintage Music Company #1006; Valerie Masterson, “En Français — Airs d’Opéra,” Jay #CDJAY 1318
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