The Impact of Jules Massenet’s Operas in Milan, 1893–1903

Spring 2014, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

supervised by John L. Nádas


The reception of French opera in Italy in the late nineteenth century has received little scholarly attention. This dissertation attempts to fill at least part of that gap through studying the reception of three operas by Jules Massenet (1842–1912), the most internationally successful French composer of the fin de siècle, in Milan, the capital of the Italian music publishing industry. Massenet’s Italian reception demonstrates that opera’s relationship to Italian identity politics in the late nineteenth century was far more complex than has been previously imagined.

Massenet’s operas, performed in Italian translation, occupied an ambiguous middle ground in Italian identity politics. Italian critics described Massenet’s operas as purely French, as contributing to Italian musical culture, and as inherently cosmopolitan works. Critics thus translated Massenet’s operas into Italian culture, whether as role models for or foils to Italian musical developments. Massenet also participated directly in Italian musical culture, visiting Milan frequently to supervise productions of his operas and serving as a judge in an Italian competition for new operas.

Music historians such as Jay Nicolaisen and Alexandra Wilson have long agreed that Italian opera suffered an identity crisis in the late nineteenth century. Studies by Michele Girardi, Julian Budden, and Alan Mallach have suggested that young Italian composers in this period struggled to find a balance between the rival legacies of Giuseppe Verdi (their Italian heritage) and Richard Wagner (imported German culture).

Without denying the importance of the aesthetic opposition between Italian and German music, this dissertation seeks to broaden and complicate this discourse by acknowledging French opera’s equally influential presence on the Italian musical stage. To meet this goal, I examine the reception of the three operas which were produced most often in Italy—Manon, Werther, and Thaïs—through the lenses of translation theory, of contemporary international relations, and the competition between the Ricordi and Sonzogno publishing houses. Massenet’s example shows the ways in which lines between French and Italian opera could be redrawn as needed to make room for alternative, cosmopolitan constructions of Italian musical and cultural identity.