Massenet : El Juglar de Notre Dame

Paris, 1973 (Audio)

  • Alain Vanzo
  • Jules Bastin
  • Robert Massard
  • Yves Bisson
  • Jean Dupoy

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    It is based on the story of the same name by Anatole France, which was in turn based on a 13th-century medieval legend by Gautier de Coincy, c. 1220.
    The role of Jean the juggler was popularized in the United States by the famous soprano, Mary Garden, which, according to some sources, horrified composer Massenet, who meant the role for a tenor. Garden's undertaking of the role was in the tradition of actresses of that era playing Peter Pan.

    The opera was popular in the early part of the twentieth century, due partly to Mary Garden's appearances in it, but it soon disappeared from the world's stages, as did many of Massenet's other operas. In the mid-1970s, the complete opera was recorded in stereo for the first time, and this recording, with the late tenor Alain Vanzo as Jean and the late baritone Jules Bastin as Boniface, was released on compact disc most recently in 2003, closely followed by another CD containing a live performance of the work, again with Vanzo. This has subsequently led to new revivals of the opera in the United States, usually in more modern dress.

    Jean, a juggler, is severely taken to task by the Prior for singing vulgar songs outside the local monastery. Seeing that Jean is filled with remorse, the Prior asks him to join the order of monks. Jean does so, and is befriended by the monastery's cook, Boniface who tells him the legend of the sagebush which opened its branches to shelter the Infant Jesus as He slept. When Jean sees that the other monks are offering lavish and beautiful gifts to the newly completed statue of the Virgin Mary, he, having no real gift, resolves to do what he can do best. He sneaks into the chapel late at night and juggles before the statue until he collapses from exhaustion.

    The other monks enter, horrified, and are about to seize Jean to reprimand him for blasphemy, when a heavenly light begins to glow and a miracle occurs — the statue of the Virgin comes to life and blesses Jean (in some productions, she merely holds out her hands in benediction, in others she tosses him a rose, and in Anatole France's original story, she descends from her pedestal and wipes Jean's brow with a handkerchief, but in most versions of the opera, she smiles down at him). Jean at first is totally unaware of anything, but suddenly cries out that he finally understands Latin (the traditional language of the Catholic Mass). He sees the Virgin ascending to Heaven and beckoning him to follow. In ecstasy, he falls back dead. The other monks, awed by the sight, declare that they have been in the presence of a saint.

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    Alain Vanzo
    Jules Bastin
    Robert Massard
    Yves Bisson