Faced with the choice of destroying the love of one’s life or accepting the loss of one’s family honour, how should a man behave? Rodrigue’s dilemma, brought on by  his prospective father-in-law delivering a mortal insult to his father, forms the basis of Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid, written in 1637 and one of the great works of classical French drama. The libretto for Massenet’s opera lifts many of Corneille’s verses directly, and while this isn’t a libretto for the purists – there’s far too much belle époque kitsch for that – the elegance of those famous alexandrine couplets shines through the evening at the Palais Garnier, where the opera received its première in 1885.

Most particularly, the poetry shone through in the voice and body language of Roberto Alagna, who brought youthful swagger and impetuosity to the role of Rodrigue. Alagna’s diction is impeccable and gives a particular sheen to the verses, he shapes his phrases beautifully and the basic timbre of the voice is very attractive. If he was a fraction slow to warm up, he was on fire by the end: there were high notes in his big entrance aria, the paean to his sword “Ô noble lame étincelante”, that stretched the voice, but by the time of the repeat at the end of the opera, those same notes were dispatched with total conviction.

The other memorable singing performance of the night came from Paul Gay as Rodrigue’s father Don Diègue (who,  arguably, has caused all the trouble in the first place by demanding murder in order to save his dignity). Gay gave us high octane bass singing to the utmost degree, every note focused, hard and driving the drama forward. Cast as Rodrigue’s fiancée Chimène, Sonia Ganassi has a dark mezzo voice which tends to smooth out all the consonants, which I’m not sure makes her an obvious fit for what is normally a soprano role, given that Chimène  starts the opera as a carefree, flighty young thing. But the confrontation in Act III between Ganassi and Alagna, after he has killed her father in their duel, was electric.

Le Cid stands or falls by its big confrontation scenes, between Rodrigue and Chimène, between Diègue and Chimène’s father the Comte de Gormas, between the King and just about everyone, and, perhaps most importantly, between Rodrigue and his own conscience. Every one of these was delivered with immense force, especially those involving the chorus, who delivered blistering accompaniment. The choral highlight came in Act II at a point when the King is surrounded by two factions each demanding their opposing views of justice: the chorus created mayhem in a way I haven’t seen outside the assembly of the Gibichungs  in Götterdämmerung. The idea that a slap in the face requires murder may be a foreign one to our twenty-first century eyes (albeit very real in Corneille’s day and not so far in the past in Massenet’s) but the drama inherent in both words and music made these confrontations seem anything but archaic. (A footnote: the last official duel in France happened in 1967).

The orchestra, conducted by Michel Plasson, were at their best when accompanying the voices. The orchestration thins out and single lines are traded between instruments; voices were never overwhelmed, while the accompaniment was full of colour. Balance of orchestra and voice was excellent all the way from solo voices to big ensembles. The orchestra weren’t perfect: the overture was a bit leaden, and there were a number of badly missed notes, but the excellence of the overall performance makes me forgive its imperfections.

Charles Roubaud and Emannuelle Favre’s staging, in broadly timeless sets and nineteenth century military  costumes, was solid and functional rather than thrilling – although there were exceptions for both good and bad: a giant lion which dominated the Burgos parliament hall was an impressive creation, whereas a loud thump preceded an unplanned ten minute break before Act IV as stage crew scrambled unsuccessfully to fix broken machinery. Stage movement and character acting were subdued: in a sense, this was a rather old-fashioned production, focused more on words and music than on the stage.

Le Cid is a real masterpiece, bringing immense dramatic intensity to an opera stage and setting a high standard which many operatic adaptations of  Shakespeare don’t reach.  Coming out of this production, I struggle to understand why this opera, such a huge success when it was first written, has vanished so totally from the repertoire.  This production is the first in Paris since 1919, and maybe that date is the clue to its disappearance: it is, after all, a very militaristic work, which may have made it an unpalatable choice in the period around two world wars.

There’s no point in my advising you not to miss this production, because tickets have been sold out for some while. But I hope other opera companies – and not just in France – take up Le Cid in future.