Washington Opera’s Le Cid

by Jan Rosen

Part 2 – Opera critique

French composer Jules Massenet completed the composition of his opera Le Cid (in Spanish, it is El Cid) in 1884.  This opera is based on the then-popular play of the same name written by a French playwright named Corneille in 1637.  The celebrated hero of the play and the opera is none other than the 11th Century Spanish knight named Rodrigo (French:  Rodrigue), better known as the Cid, or conquerer, who had driven the Moors out of Spain.

This opera is full of opulence and splendor.  The sets for this production were lavish, full of color, and well designed.  The long flowing costumes were elegant, gold and crimson, and made of a heavy fabric.  Spotlights highlighted who was singing at any one time, a necessity with so many people on stage.  For an opera with many people on stage all at the same time, with so many props and other things, staging can be tricky, and I am sure errors are hard to avoid.  As I mentioned earlier, the recent Madrid production made use of 27 scenes and 700 people onstage (not all at once, though, and it might have been an exaggeration, as the Washington Opera used only 70 choristers, 34 supers, and 32 dancers) and was probably very expensive to produce.  I can understand why this opera had not been produced in the United States as a fully-staged work since 1902.

Backdrops for the sets consisted of Moorish latticework, sculpted and painted crosses, bells, books, horses, jewels, etc. that could be wheeled back and forth, on and off the stage, with little effort.  The most important thing for the scene coordinators to remember in this production is:  TIMING.  I hardly noticed when one scene shifted into another.  It was done so effortlessly and painlessly.  The movement of people was done so fluidly, it was a wonder that all those people could be coordinated so well.  For example, there were scenes in which dancers appeared and danced among the members of the Spanish the Moorish courts, twirling in and out and around.  When it was time for the dancers to move off stage in one direction and the next scene to begin, the singers silently came in and took their places.  Horses, bells, etc. were wheeled into place for the scene.  It was like the whole opera was a lavish, three and one half hour festival of dance and song.

Dance and song, you say?  For an opera about a war hero?  Well, there is more to this opera than heroism in battle. And there is plenty of "wine, women, and song" here!  Women sing and dance in the Moorish camp and the Spanish court.  Heroes and courtiers sing of love, betrayal, redemption, and honor.  Characters die and others grieve and emote, and others boast of their courage and fall in and out of love and back again faster than it takes to unsheathe a scabbard.  The action is hyped in the style of French Grand Opera popular during the 19th Century.  However, despite all the hullabaloo and bravado among the war heroes, the underlying theme of simple and sincere love adds a special quality to this opera.

The love theme centers around Rodrigue (“Le Cid”) and Chimene, the two principal characters.

Plácido Domingo sang the role of Rodrigue, and was in his usual excellent form.  His voice was fluid and effortless.  He has the ability to shift his voice to reflect moods, not only his, but also the setting.  For the scenes where he must prove himself a gallant warrior, his voice took on a deep assertive quality, of self-assurance that he is a hero.  No doubt about it, he will defeat the Moors!  But in scenes of tender emotion, vowing his love to his lady, Chimene, or singing of his devotion to his patron St. James, or to his ruler, his voice went up into a higher register, that of the young, devoted knight ready to humble himself and serve.

Elisabete Matos sang the role of Chimene, who is infatuated with Rodrigue.  Chimene is also the daughter of Le Comte de Gormans, who has hopes of being the guardian or tutor of the Infanta, the daughter of the King of Spain.  Gormans is passed over for the position in favor of a man Gormans thinks to be inferior.  This man is Rodrigue?s father, Don Diegue.  In a fit of jealousy, Gormans slays Don Diegue. In retaliation, Rodrigue slays Gormans. Chimene is torn between love for her father (whose death she must avenge) and her love for Rodrigue.  She vows Rodrigue must die.  Ms. Matos' voice is exquisite.  She is both a fine actress and an excellent singer.  In this production, she has to be several different things to several different opposite roles, and must do it convincingly.  It was such a delight to hear and see her on stage.

The highlight of the opera is the final scene, after the defeat of the Moors.  Rodrigue comes home a victorious hero after this extremely difficult battle against a formidable foe.  The Spanish king wants to reward Rodrigue and asks him to choose his prize.  Of all the possible riches in the kingdom for Rodrigue to choose, he replies "Chimene", not realizing she had vowed to kill him, and is torn between love and vengeance. No! wait! This doesn't turn out the way it might be expected!  There's more!  Rodrigue decides to show a heart of true valor and says he will sacrifice himself for Chimene, so she will not have to choose.  He kneels before her and tells her to take his sword and kill him.  She can't! Her love is too strong.  So she forgives him and the story ends happily.

A rather simplistic ending, but I felt it was a good one, and tied everything together quite well for this lengthy opera.  After all, it's only an opera.  Mr. Domingo and Ms. Matos were at their finest at this point of the opera, as lovers who have freely won each other's love without fear of broken bonds of loyalty.

Definitely an opera I want to see again, especially with these two lead singers.

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