Of several operas set during the turmoil of the French Revolution, Massenet’s Thérèse is the most concise: its powerful story of friendship, love, duty and sacrifice is an emotional roller-coaster as its three main characters play out their tragic lives against the backdrop of a country and a whole society turned upside down. The opera was inspired by the true story of Lucille Desmoulins, who supported her Dantonist husband on his way to the scaffold and, after being arrested on a charge of conspiring to free him, soon followed him to the guillotine; and by a lunch which Massenet attended in 1905 at the Italian Embassy, a palace in the Rue de Grenelle in Paris, which a fellow guest, a Contessa Tornielli, told him had once been the family home of the Gallifet family, several of whom went to the guillotine during the revolution and others had escaped abroad. One of the survivors returned to the palace in 1798 to discover that it had been saved from sale and destruction as a property of the people by an old servant who had insisted that it was his home and that he was one of the people. The servant returned the property to its rightful owner.
Drame musicale in two acts.
Libretto by Jules Claretie (who in1876 had published the story of Lucille Desmoulins and her husband Camille).
First performed in Monte Carlo on 7 February 1907.
In the autumn of 1792, André Thorel and his young wife Thérèse have bought the dilapidated chateau at Clagny, near Versailles, in which André was brought up. He is the son of the former steward there, and the chateau has been auctioned off after the flight of the young owner, the Marquis de Clerval, Armand. André and Armand were brought up together and André hopes one day to be able to reunite Armand with his family home, but he is torn by his friendship with the young nobleman and his support for the ideals of democratic revolution. André is a member of the Girondists, a political group which had campaigned for the end of the monarchy in France but which did not support the headlong descent into bloody revolution.
The opera opens as a group of soldiers are taking a break outside the dilapidated chateau. They are on their way to Paris, tattered but proud. Two officers discuss the state of the chateau and one of them comments that many of their comrades will never see it again, because it has been bought by a former servant there, now a member of the powerful Girondists, and that its former noble owner has disappeared. The other officer ironically observes that new masters are replacing the old aristocracy.
André and Thérèse emerge from the house and watch the soldiers preparing to move on; Thérèse calls them brave, and André says that although they might die for their country, it is a fine way to die, and that for him, even in such dangerous times, it is still sweet to savour life knowing that she loves him. One of the officers notices them, and comes across to thank Citizen Thérèse for letting his men enjoy their brief respite there. He calls his troop to order and as they present arms, André urges them to do their duty for their country while he and his kind keep safe watch over their sisters and their mothers.
André and Thérèse watch them leave and Thérèse asks what their duty really is. Is it the same duty which means that she and André have to spend so much time apart: he goes off to meetings, to fight, and all she can do is to wait for him to return. She tells him how much she fears for the future, and when he tries to comfort her, she tells him how much she dreads having to go back to Paris and how much she longs to stay in the safety of the chateau. André reminds her that he did not buy the chateau for them, but to keep it for his outlawed friend, the marquis, who is in exile and might now even be dead, but should he return, will have his estates restored to him.
Thérèse observes that she and André also live in a kind of exile, desperate to keep away from the uncertainties of Paris. André asks her if it is that which has been making her so melancholy, because he has noticed that something has been worrying her, and Thérèse reminds him that she was an orphan and that she owes all her happiness to him and that her only duty is to give him happiness. André leads her to the nearby lake and to look into it and see her reflection – that is the beauty which gives him happiness, he tells her; all he desires is to die for his country or to live with her by his side. A distant drumroll is heard and he tells her that he must meet the battalion at the gate because he must return to Paris tonight, but that she will not be alone because he will come back to her as soon as he can. Thérèse tells him that she loves him and he leaves. Alone, she repeats that she loves him because he is gentle, good and devoted, but by reminding her of the exiled friend he has revived thoughts of Armand in her heart. She recalls how Armand, as he was about to leave, perhaps going to his death, declared his love for her and asked her to love him from afar, and that this house bears all those memories for her, memories of smiles and of tears. Here, she says, are dreams and tenderness, and down there, in Paris, are real life and duty. She walks slowly into the chateau, deep in thought.
Through the trees, a man approaches the chateau. Obviously trying not to be seen, he approaches the house and stands looking pensively into the waters of the lake. It is Armand, and he reminisces about his childhood in the chateau and his parents. He muses that to an exile, death makes no difference. He recalls how a year ago he had said goodbye to Thérèse, and that the stone bench where they sat now seems like a tomb. He sees the notices nailed to the door of the house and as he angrily moves towards them to tear them down, Thérèse steps out in front of him, amazed to see that he is still in France, and not far away in safety. He tells her that he will fight for his king and for everything that he believes in, and that he is on his way to join the fight, but that he wanted to see his old home one last time so that he can remember how much they were in love. Thérèse warns him to keep quiet, telling him that André is not far away and might hear him. She tells Armand that André has given her protection and love, that she has married him and that Armand must forget her now. Armand pours out his love for her, but she insists that he must forget her, reminding him that politically she is his enemy. He tells her that she had come to the chateau for the same reason as him – to remember their happy past and the love that they shared. Thérèse falters, but continues to tell him to forget her. He reminds her that the trees were witnesses to their love, and that they had danced a minuet together at the ball there. Thérèse too remembers everything but tells him that autumn has come and the trees have lost their leaves now and that their dreams have turned out to be false. She tells him that her place now is beside her husband, and reluctantly, Armand agrees to leave – but he asks her for one last kiss.
Suddenly, André returns and Thérèse runs to him. He recognises Armand and when Thérèse tells him that Armand is preparing to leave, André replies that he will be going to his death. A crowd of volunteers now appears and soldiers can be heard singing; an officer arrives and says that he recognises Armand, but André says that Armand is an old friend, and embraces him, warning him to say nothing. As the soldiers and the crowd move away, paying their respects to André, Thérèse comments in terror that she has reunited the two men who love her.
Eight months later, in a house in Paris, André is working at his desk while Thérèse stands looking out of the window. The voice of someone in the street is heard selling lists of those who are under suspicion. Thérèse comments that the swallows are so happy, but the people in the street are so full of hatred. She says that they should be in the country, not here is the city. André asks if she is afraid of a drum-roll and she tells him that the drums are drowning out all chance of mercy. André reminds her that he is proud that he is still sheltering his old friend, because friendship makes its own laws. Thérèse responds that Liberty demands too high a price. The insistent cries of the street hawkers continue and André suggests that they close the door to shut out the sound. Thérèse asks whether they have to continue to give Armand sanctuary – can André not give him a safe-conduct pass to enable him to get away? André replies that he has a safe-conduct already written, and that after Armand has left, they will be able to think of themselves and find somewhere where they can really be safe. While they look forward to this, Morel, the porter of the house, appears in military uniform. He tells them fearfully that a crowd has gathered down at the Tuilleries and that things could flare up at any moment and threaten them. André calmly says that he will go to his post, taking Morel with him. Morel leaves and Thérèse asks André how serious the situation really is. He tells her that he has faced death before and will do so again. Armand comes in and André tells him that he can no longer guarantee Armand’s safety, so it would be better for Armand to leave now. He tells Armand and Thérèse that he loves them both dearly and they both reflect privately on the dream that they have lost. André gives Armand the safe-conduct and tells him to get out of Paris while he can, ideally, that same evening; he himself will go to his men. Thérèse reminds him that there is trouble brewing, but he just kisses her and tells her that as long as he has her love, he will fear nothing; Armand watches this in great anguish. André then turns to Armand and says farewell to him – he then blows a kiss to Thérèse and leaves.
Thérèse and Armand look at one another in horror. Armand tells her that he could hardly bear to watch that kiss and to hear André’s wishes for his safety, and Thérèse tells him that his safety is so threatened that he must leave immediately and not wait until the evening. Armand declares that he will never leave her, and Thérèse tells him that the threatening mob is too dangerous – he must give up their love and flee for his life, since that is the gift that André has given him. Armand desperately tries to persuade her to flee with him. She rejects the idea immediately, but he repeats his declarations of love and she begins to weaken. Eventually, she gives in and agrees to escape with him to a safer land where they can live in love together.
Their rapture is broken by a violent knocking at the door: Thérèse pushes Armand into hiding and opens the door cautiously: it is Morel, come to tell her that André has been arrested, and through the window they can both see that many of André’s fellow Girondists have been taken prisoner and are even now being taken away for a summary trial. Horrified, Thérèse tells Armand that it is too late for them now – he must save himself. He urges her to remember him and to send him a message when she is safe so that he can arrange for her to come to him. Thérèse, beside herself with anxiety, agrees, and Armand leaves.
Alone, Thérèse bids farewell to her past life and says that she will now have only exquisite memories and her solemn duty. She hears a noise and rushes to the window, from where she sees a scaffold being wheeled past, and behind it, in a tumbril, André being taken away for execution. She cries out that her husband is to die for saving the man whom she loves, and that she will join him – salvation lies in duty. She throws open the window and calls on then mob to reunite husband and wife – ‘Long live the King!’ Shouts are heard outside and soldiers and a rabble of men and women rush into the room and try to drag her away. Thérèse defiantly cries out, ‘Oh Death, I come into your arms’ and walks into the howling mob.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
- the story of Massenet’s life and his operas
- the plots of all of Massenet’s operas
- the life of Jules Claretie and his contribution to opera
- the stories behind Massenet’s operas and the singers and librettists who helped to create them
- other operas set during the French Revolution, including Giordano’s Andrea Chenier and Madame Sans-Gêne, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Gottfried von Einem’s Dantons Tod …
- … and much, much more about opera plots and those who created them
© Roger Witts 2011