Massenet’s Le Cid was not the first opera to tackle the subject of the mythical representation of the historical El Cid—nor was it the last. Indeed, scholars have estimated that at least twenty-six composers recognized the tale of the 11th-century warrior caught between passion and filial duty as too delicious a drama not to set to music. These included such illustrious contributors to operatic history as Giovanni Paisiello, Georges Bizet, and Claude Debussy. Still, it is French master Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera that has made a lasting impression, despite being rarely performed.

Jules, the youngest of four children from the second marriage of metal scythe manufacturer Alexis Massenet, is known today as a towering figure in the world of French opera. Famous for his sweeping and hummable tunes as well as his lyrical yet heart-wrenching approach to romance (particularly in 1884’s Manon and 1892’s Werther), Massenet’s captivating melodies and his ability to synthesize a variety of styles and forms have earned him a place in the permanent operatic canon alongside compatriots such as Gounod and Meyerbeer. Yet music was not Massenet’s first love. Brought up against the backdrop of a revolutionary Paris, the future composer preferred astronomy to notes and counterpoint. Still, his mother, a pianist and composer, gave him his first lessons at age six, and launched his seemingly meteoric rise to musical prominence.

Just four years after his first piano lesson, Massenet entered the famous Paris Conservatoire—a prestigious institution where he would later serve as professor—to take classes in both piano and solfège. His education led to professional positions as a percussionist in Paris orchestras and, in less than a decade, he was studying composition under the tutelage of noted operatic celebrity Ambroise Thomas. The connection with Thomas, combined with Massenet’s miraculous win at the influential Prix de Rome competition of 1863 (circumstances forced him to compose entirely in his head, without the aid of a piano), helped to advance a comfortable career in opera. At the time of Le Cid’s premiere, Massenet had already enjoyed great successes with Le roi de Lahore (1877) in Paris, Hérodiade (1881) in Brussels, and Manon, which was to become a worldwide favorite in the 20th and 21st centuries. He went on to create almost forty operas during his lifetime.

Yet despite how prolific Massenet may seem to modern audiences, Le Cid appears to have been born out of a period of restlessness. According to Massenet’s own recollections in Mes souvenirs, he was at a loss for new dramatic material after completing Manon and begged his longtime publisher to provide him with an intriguing plot:

As is my custom, I did not wait for Manon’s fate to be decided before I began to plague my publisher, [Georges] Hartmann, to wake up and find me a new subject. I had hardly finished my plaint, to which he listened in silence with a smile on his lips, [when] he went…and took out five books of manuscript…It was Le Cid, an opera in five acts…

Still, Massenet’s own letters contradict this idea, and there is record of the composer having worked on Manon and Le Cid simultaneously. Whatever the circumstances, Le Cid was brought to Massenet’s desk as a fully formed libretto created by Édouard Blau and Louis Gallet, a pair of fruitful writing partners.

The story was inspired by 17th-century dramatist and national treasure Pierre Corneille, a man whose works pushed the boundaries of tradition at a time when religious and monarchical law tried desperately to govern theater and art. His play, Le Cid, was in turn based on an earlier Spanish drama by Guillén de Castro entitled Las mocedades del Cid (“The Early Years of Cid”). Both works offer fictitious accounts of the life of Spanish warrior Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known to history as El Cid, who lived from approximately 1043 to 1099. Though legend has cast de Vivar as something of a Christian prophet who pushed the Moorish Muslims out of the Spanish territories and ignited the movement that would later spawn the Crusades, the real El Cid seems to have been more of an 11th-century gun for hire. Having offered his services in a variety of battles to both Christian and Muslim forces in a time of social and political turmoil, de Vivar earned the lauded title of “El Cid,” a Spanish derivative of the Arabic term for “lord” or “leader.”

In both Corneille and Massenet’s versions, however, Le Cid emerges as a thoughtful and honorable soldier who, especially in the opera, fights under a decidedly Christian flag. In fact, should there be any doubt that the Catholic Massenet wished to present his Le Cid as an unequivocal hero, it should be noted that the overture of the opera is rooted in the key of E-flat, the traditionally heroic key used in such epic works as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Still, the Christian vs. Moor conflict serves merely as background noise to the central tumultuous love story, one that was considered so scandalous and problematic in Corneille’s day that it sparked a literary fracas known as the “Quarrel of the Cid”—in which moralists questioned the propriety of Corneille’s decision to allow his lovers to meet alone in a bedchamber, among other indiscretions.  Massenet was no doubt drawn to the infinite possibilities inherent in the story of Rodrigo (or, in French, Rodrigue) and his lady Jimena (Chimène), who find themselves on opposite ends of a family feud that could mean their mutual destruction. Yet, though much of Massenet’s work follows the general outline of Corneille’s play, there are departures from the original. Indeed, Massenet reported in his memoirs that he brought on a third librettist, Adolphe d’Ennery, with the express purpose of providing more dramatic punch to the proceedings.

Where the play makes much of the nuanced conflict between passionate attraction and dishonor, the opera is content to paint in broader strokes. As the curtain rises on the first act, Rodrigue (who, unlike his Corneille counterpart, is a seasoned fighter) is to be knighted by the King of Castile, the historical King Alfonso VI, and hopes to be happily wed to Chimène, daughter to the noble Comte de Gormas. The celebrations are cut short, however, when the king names Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, as the premier guardian of the royal princess, or l’Infanta. Considering this an egregious affront to his good name, Gormas taunts Don Diègue, ultimately challenging him to a duel he cannot participate in because he is too old. Feeling his honor is at stake, Don Diègue calls upon Rodrigue to avenge his family by murdering Comte Gormas. In a disjointed musical monologue with furious interjections from the orchestra, Rodrigue realizes he must kill his beloved’s father…and the wheels of the romantic plot are finally set in motion.

Once Rodrigue carries out his bloody deed, the grieving Chimène finds herself bound by convention to cry out publicly for his death. Privately, however, she hopes that her protestations will fail; she is, after all, hopelessly in love with the decorated warrior. This is a slight departure from the Corneille text in that the dramatist, by contrast, made a strong case for the idea that Rodrigue’s sense of honor is precisely what so endears him to Chimène—that is to say that, in the play, the murder of her father is (somewhat disconcertingly) the very thing that so attracts Chimène to Rodrigue. In the opera, however, this point is not made so obviously. Instead, in a beautiful duet, occasionally accompanied by the flute and harp figures that signify Rodrigue’s love for Chimène, the lovers lament the sins of their fathers and bemoan the fact that they, as innocents, have inherited such despair. They are then given a glimmer of hope when the king offers to use Rodrigue’s services in battle against a Moorish invasion as payment for the murder of Gormas—a reprieve that is not extended to the Corneillian Rodrigue.

Massenet seems to have distilled the anguished love story down to its most basic fundamentals; even so, the scenes between Rodrigue and Chimène remain the most fraught and emotionally charged of the entire work. A 2015 review of a Parisian production went so far as to say that the opera “stands or falls” on its scenes of confrontation, particularly those between its hero and its heroine. Indeed, their public altercation in Act II is carried out in an unsettling passage in which Rodrigue and Chimène’s voices almost fugue with one another amidst ominous low strings—an agonizing reminder that, though the lovers are in violent opposition, their hearts are bound to sing the same tune.

Whatever deviations from the original Corneille play, the high-stakes romance of the opera, coupled with Massenet’s deft usage of French operatic conceits such as ballet interludes and choral commentary, were more than enough to impress the critics of the day. Upon its premiere at the Paris Opéra on November 30, 1885, Le Figaro hailed it as a breakthrough in Massenet’s art, praising his success at revealing “a dramatic temperament that, up to this time, had slumbered beneath the sensuous torpor of symphonic caresses.”

Clearly Massenet’s flair for swooning atmospheric music and thick orchestration had given way to something much more stylish, satisfying, and complete. The papers honored Massenet by mentioning his name in conjunction with the likes of Mozart and Gluck (to which can arguably be added the names of titans such as Verdi and Gounod). Legend has it that a well-known soprano friend of Massenet’s approached him in the street after the first performance, crying simply, “It’s a triumph!”

Sadly, though, Le Cid faded from the international repertoire after enjoying somewhat regular performances from 1885 through 1919. Though it was performed first in the United States in New Orleans in 1890, a Washington Opera presentation starring Plácido Domingo in 1999 claimed to be the first fully staged production to reach American shores since 1902 (a 1976 concert version, similar to the one you’ll hear at this performance, having been championed by conductor Eve Queler at Carnegie Hall). Since 1999, the opera has still been regarded as something of a rare gem, with Parisian offering in the spring of 2015 starring Roberto Alagna being the latest among a sporadic list of lavish productions.

Yet Le Cid has never really left the public’s consciousness. Its seductive ballet music, with its Spanish rhythms and melodies that meander in and out of major and minor keys, has been a favorite recording subject of several prestigious orchestras, and its arias have attracted some of the most famous names in opera. Chimène’s third-act outpouring, “Pleurez, mes yeux” (“Cry, my eyes”), with its nostalgic yet dramatic middle section bookended by shockingly low-range verses that suggest a funeral dirge, is a welcome challenge for any soprano. It has been recorded by a variety of divas ranging from Grace Bumbry to Dame Joan Sutherland and, more recently, Angela Gheorghiu.

That said, much of the timeless nature of Le Cid rests on the strength of its climactic aria, “O souverain” (“Oh, sovereign”), Rodrigue’s hymn to God and to Saint James of Compostela (Saint Jacques in the opera) on the eve of the Moorish battle. One of the few stand-alone arias in the piece, this moment, which Massenet claimed was inspired by the story of the divine vision of Saint Julien, also calls vividly to mind the famed Christian apparition of Constantine, and elevates Rodrigue to something just short of Christian martyrdom. The stately legato fanfares that open the aria conjure images of the militaristic scenes to follow, while the arpeggio harp accompaniment in the second verse recalls both the music of the angels and the “divine amour” of Chimène—a beautiful blending of the two passions that drive Rodrigue: glory and romantic love. The melody stops just shy of bringing the tenor to the extremes of his vocal range, rendering it just showy enough to be exciting to the listener but not so bombastic as to move it out of the realm of solemn prayer.

For today’s opera-going audiences, Le Cid may very well exist in the shadow of Massenet’s Manon and Werther. Lovers of these seminal works might claim that “Pleurez, mes yeux” is nothing but a precursor to Charlotte’s wildly popular “Va! Laissez couler mes larmes” or that the Act III love duet isn’t nearly as breathtaking as Manon and Des Grieux’s equally tormented “N’est-ce plus ma main…?” And yet, recordings of “O souverain” from acclaimed tenors such as Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Domingo, and beyond have served as reminder to generations that Le Cid has supreme staying power. As one critic once observed: Le Cid may not necessarily be Massenet’s masterpiece, but it could very well stand as a masterpiece belonging to just about anyone else.

Eleni Hagen is a freelance writer based in Boston. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College and an M.M. in Vocal Performance from The Boston Conservatory. She has recently written for The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Boston Philharmonic, and Rockport Music.