About this work

This brief verismo opera is even more efficient in its storytelling than La Navarraise; touches of local color, such as the revolutionary songs and dances, are tightly integrated into the plot. However, like Navarraise, there is a dual plot, the political and the personal, both bringing the protagonists to their dooms. Even during the more tranquil moments, such as the recurring minuet, the mood remains tense, whether through an ominous orchestral undercurrent or simply the contrast with the violence or passions of earlier moments, a contrast that the opera's brevity reinforces.

For such a violent opera, without a single moment of humor, it has more than its share of amusing anecdotes. When Massenet, Lucy Arbell (the mezzo who created many of his roles, one of the many female singers with whom Massenet became infatuated), George Cain, a historical scholar, and Cain's wife visited the site of a massacre during the Fresh Revolution, Cain mistook Arbell, who had wandered away, for the ghost of Lucille Desmoulins, who followed her husband, once a revolutionary leader, to the guillotine during the Terror. This gave Massenet the idea for the opera. While he was writing it, he and the librettist, Jules Claretie discussed, on a party line telephone, the best ways to kill Therese. A lady whose line crossed theirs overheard, sputtered recriminations, and vowed that if she could find them, she would call the police.

It was well-received at its premiere at the Opera de Monte Carlo, but had relatively few performances until it disappeared from the repertoire after 1930. While it has occasionally been revived or recorded in the post-World War II era, it has often been criticized, with a fair amount of truth, for being merely a watered down compendium of previous operas, musically and dramatically.