February 19, 2020
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Reawakening a ‘melodic gift’

There are several miracles that contribute to the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s next concert, set for this Sunday at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono.

There’s the miracle of Christ, the story at the center of French composer Jules Massenet’s 1873 oratorio “Marie-Magdeleine,” the piece to be performed by the BSO, the University of Maine Oratorio Society, the University Singers and four soloists. Then there’s the miracle of the concert itself — a coming together of a wealth of local talent, a very hard-to-track-down score and libretto, and two musicians devoted to the composer in question and the art of opera.

Ludlow Hallman, choral director at the University of Maine and the conductor for Sunday’s concert, spent many months attempting to find all of the missing parts of Massenet’s original score. The libretto he had. The full orchestral score, he did not. Though Massenet’s operas “Thais” and “Manon” are performed today, “Marie-Magdeleine” — an oratorio and not technically a true opera — is virtually unknown. It wasn’t easy to get the whole thing together.

“In his time, Massenet was as well-known and popular as [Giacomo] Puccini or [Richard] Wagner. After his death, though, he kind of fell into obscurity, for the most part,” said Hallman. “To my knowledge, ‘Marie-Magdeleine’ has not been performed in full in decades. It was a bit of a task to track down the full score.”

It’s not the first time an obscure Massenet piece has been performed at UMaine. In the mid-1990s, the Massenet Society of America disbanded, and gifted its archives to the University of Maine, along with a sum of money and an agreement that for the next 12 years, the university would stage a concert each year featuring French music, with an emphasis on Massenet.

In 1997, the Oratorio Society, with Hallman conducting, staged another little-known Massenet piece at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor: “Eve,” a telling of the story of Adam and Eve. The title role in “Eve” was sung by soprano Nancy Ogle, who 12 years later will give voice to the title character in “Marie-Magdeleine,” the last in the series of Massenet concerts.

“When [the Massenet Society] disbanded, they were looking for a place to house their archives. Maine was a natural choice, considering our large French-speaking population,” said Ogle, who was active with the organization until its dissolution. “It’s nice to have it come full circle, with the first concert being such a success, and this one being such a big affair. It’s a really wonderful way to celebrate his music.”

The last factually verified performance of “Marie-Magdeleine” occurred in 1976 at the Lincoln Center in New York City, though Ogle believes there probably have been performances in France since then. Currently, all known recordings of the piece are out of print. Yet in the late 19th century, it was among Massenet’s most performed works — it was his first widely popular piece, drawing acclaim from the likes of Tchaikovsky and Georges Bizet.

Though the Massenet archive at UMaine includes “Marie-Magdeleine,” not all the necessary parts of the score were part of the Massenet Society’s gift.

“I know [Hallman] was working pretty hard to get all the orchestral parts together,” said Ogle. “He thought he had it at the Princeton Library. Then there were parts of it actually in France. It took a while to get everything together.”

The oratorio centers, of course, on the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Christ, during the final days of Christ’s life. Mary and her sister Martha, voiced by mezzo-soprano Marcia Gronewold, receive Jesus (sung by tenor John Grover) in their hometown of Magdala — though not before Judas (sung by Seth Grondin, bass) comes in to cause a ruckus.

“A casual observer might think that it’s about Mary, Mother of God. It’s not that at all. It’s about the Magdalene, and the interaction between her and Christ,” said Hallman. “The controversial element is not present, either. Massenet was very careful to make sure that the duets between them did not turn into any kind of love duet.”

The relationship between Mary Magdalene and Christ has remained a contentious one throughout the centuries — was she Christ’s most devoted disciple? Or, as everything from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “The Da Vinci Code” has implied, was their relationship more than spiritual? The question remains unanswered, though the debate continues.

“The passion Mary feels for Jesus has this wonderful edge that many late Romantic poets explored in their work,” said Ogle. “Is it mystical love, or is it mixed? If read a certain way, people might get the wrong idea. She experiences a kind of rapture, and she gets so absorbed in that divine vision that it might be hard to tell. It’s a very interesting spiritual question.”

One thing is for certain, “Marie-Magdeleine” is a moving, deeply melodic choral work, one that both Ogle and Hallman have greatly enjoyed working on. Hallman’s student singers in particular have taken to the work.

“The singers have been very enthusiastic about it,” said Hallman. “They keep saying, ‘This is a wonderful piece, why isn’t it done more?’ Massenet has a wonderful melodic gift, as well as a wonderful dramatic gift. One hopes there might be a revival of his works.”

As an opera singer, Ogle relishes the opportunity to sing such a well-crafted part.

“[Massenet] was famous for a reason. He was a great writer for the voice,” said Ogle. “He wrote gorgeous, lyrical lines. This is a pleasure to sing. It’s steeped in the kind of 19th century vocal technique, which really reached its peak at the time that this was written. It’s meaty and dramatic and very enjoyable.”

Despite its obscurity, Hallman said he believes that once BSO audiences hear the music, they too will be taken by it.

“It’s kind of a risk for [the BSO] to take on a piece like this, that’s essentially unknown,” said Hallman. “It’s not like doing the Brahms Requiem, when you know it’ll be a full house. It’s really wonderful that the Symphony wants to support this project. I hope that people will take a chance on it, because there’s really so much poetry and beauty in it.”

“Marie-Magdeleine” will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 26, at the Collins Center for the Arts. For tickets, call 581-1755, or visit www.bangorsymphony.org.

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