About this work
Cléopâtre was Massenet's last opera, written while he was seriously ill (completed, in fact, only about two weeks before his death), and it was not premiered until 1914. While not his masterpiece, it is still a culmination of his musical career, drawing together, almost as though for a closing ceremony, many of the musical and dramatic themes that he had used throughout his career.
Cléopâtre is his most seductive heroine, with Thais' "orientalist" sensuality in her sinuous, erotic music, and the entire first act revolves around her sexual allure, first in Marc-Antoine's sturdy defiance and then her perfectly staged appearance, and finally in his crumbling into capitulation. Like Manon, it is only after he and she are both ruined that she truly loves the man she has seduced, and like Anthaneal, a man who scorns and thinks that he has conquered this feminine power finds that it has instead conquered and destroyed him. His chaste heroines, too, such as Grisélidis, Floriane in Amadis, and Nina in Cherubin, also have their counterpart in Octavie, and the vocal casting is much the same, a light lyric soprano's girlish timbre set against the womanly mezzo of Cléopâtre. This pairing of two sides of female sexuality is a recurrent theme in most branches of fin-de-siècle art, though musically it probably received no more apt settings than Massenet's. Marc-Antoine is the man destroyed by his passion for a woman, the sensual drive which he attempts to overcome but cannot.
It also shows some of his weaknesses, particularly in martial music. His love music or music about the conflict between love and duty is almost always unmistakably from his pen, but the music depicting the military power and bravado of Rome could have come from a competent amateur.
Premiered in 1914 at Monte Carlo, it was received moderately well, though like so many of his works, it suffered from the change of tastes from Romantic to Modern, and fell out of the repertoire, though there are occasional revivals.