El Cid or Le Cid – you’re not a hero until they turn you into a play, an opera and a Hollywood movie.

Roberto Alagna as Marseilles’ operatic Le Cid, 2011
I might’ve done it anyway but during this enforced time of relaxation due to my illness, I have been catching up on less well-known French operas on that wonderful modern treasure-chest, Youtube. I’ve been listening to classical music composed in the year 1885 recently so that led me to a 2011 Marseilles Opera production of Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera, Le Cid starring the marvelously energetic but perpetually adolescent Franco-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna who, in my opinion, is much better in French than Italian operas. Spain’s 11th Century national hero, El Cid, was given a chic French make-over by Massenet and a 1920s setting by director Charles Roubaud which worked better when Roberto Alagna wasn’t acting like a schoolboy with a wooden sword and when the “heroic” Spanish army didn’t look like extras in the  Sgt. Bilko Show. Opera singers are not always the best advocates for the reputation of national heroes. 

El Cid statue in Burgos, Spain.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the original El Cid, (c1043 – 1099) was a lot more heroic looking than Mr Alagna if this statue in his native town of Burgos is to be believed. He was a mighty warrior, they say, who drove the Moors out of Spain leading to the country’s eventual unification.

Charlton Heston in El Cid, the movie (1961)

He was the kind of Hollywood hero that would’ve have been great in a Hollywood movie and, in 1961, that’s just what happened when Hollywood had heroic-looking actors like Charlton Heston who made much more believable warriors than most podgy operatic tenors.

El Cid, the movie, directed by Anthony Mann (1961)

Here’s the movie trailer – they don’t make trailers like this any more so take a quick look even if it is only to see why Charlton Heston and the very beautiful Sophia Loren became such stars.

Antoine Cegarra and Camille Cotin in Le Cid, the play by Pierre Corneille (1634), Théâtre Silvia-Monfort, Paris (2009)

French school kids and French language students everywhere, will mostly think of El Cid not as an American hunk or as an Italian tenor but as a dignified, maybe slightly effete, but passionate Frenchman in the play by Pierre Corneille (1606 – 1684). You can still catch it in the theatre in France where these days it has a gallic sensitivity seldom seen in Samuel Bronston productions.

Pierre Corneille (1606 – 1684)

English and French schools still both try to put their children off the words of their great lookalike dramatists by forcing the texts on them and ignoring that their plays actually work best in the theatre.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912)

The uncanny resemblance between Corneille and Shakespeare is compounded by another lookalike, the French composer Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912) whose opera, Le Cid, started me off on this in-Cid-ious ramble. Massenet filled the gap that exists,  bar an opera or two, between the greater works of Verdi and Puccini. Without Verdi’s towering genius and not nearly as good a melodist as Puccini, he’s not to be ignored because his work is much better than most people believe – even if Le Cid is not one of his greatest opera (If you want that, you have to go the its predecessor, Manon). He had a musical sensitivity and psychological insight that give his works their power when they’re performed by singers who ‘get’ the subtleties of French opera.

Poster for Le Cid (1885), the opera by Jules Massenet

The opera was a great hit between 1885 and, say, 1920, when the difficult role of Le Cid himself was often taken by the greatest tenors of the day – starting with the Polish star Jean de Reszke (1850 – 1925) who, sorry Roberto Alagna, looked a lot more heroic than most modern tenors.

Jean de Reszke (1850 – 1925) as Le Cid (1885) in the premiere of Massenet’s opera.

I’m finally getting to my point, bravo, you cry. My interest in the opera goes back to my childhood when I first took an interest in opera after hearing the pioneering early recordings by that singer who still thrills me today, Enrico Caruso (1973 – 1921). Caruso was the first great star of the recording industry, the first person to sell a million records (Leoncavallo’s Vesti la giubba, 1904) and quite possibly one of the very greatest of all opera singers.

Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921), the first recording star.

In 1916, he recorded the tenor aria  “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père!” from Massenet’s Le Cid and it suited his voice like a glove. I loved it on first hearing even though I had no idea at the time who El Cid was or what the aria was going on about. All I knew was that it was a glorious emotional tune sung by the most beautiful voice I had ever heard.

Caruso’s 1916 recording of the famous aria from Le Cid
If you can forget the ancient recording techniques, I think you will be able to hear what I mean:

When I first heard that recording, I was but a lad and I didn’t know how it fitted into Massenet’s opera.  It was the first time that I have heard it in context when I found that Youtube download. It was news to me that El Cid is praying to God for victory in battle or that his prayers are answered by Saint James Campostela and a heavenly choir – a part of me wishes I hadn’t found that out but don’t let it put you off this clip of Roberto Alagna’s performance. Those trumpet notes before the voice comes in still get me even if the singer is not Caruso and, all these years later, the melody still plays in my head in times of extreme emotion. Roberto Alagna does well, very well in fact, even if he doesn’t look like Chartlon Heston or sound like Enrico Caruso, poor boy. Massenet like all great opera composers knew just how to get us all going.

Roberto Alagna singing the aria Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père! from Le Cid by Massenet, Opéra de Marseille, 17 June 2011

My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published  on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.

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