Jules Massenet wrote mostly for the opera, and his best known work is probably the opera Thaïs. This one is maybe the least well known, but it is infamous for its demanding title role. Massenet asks for real vocal acrobatics here. It was performed in 1889 but after some successful performances it disappeared from the stage. After the death of Massenet’s idol Sybil Sanderson in 1923 he actively discouraged anyone from performing it. Sybil was his muse for this work, and her signature is shown on the first page of the manuscript, along with the composer’s.
In 1970 it was picked up by Joan Sutherland’s husband the conductor Richard Bonynge, who was a big fan of Massenet. There are a couple more performances, but not many. Massenet almost Wagnerian sized opera is not for the faint of heart, but there is certainly beauty there.
Esclarmonde is a Byzantine princess with an eye for the hero of the piece: the knight Roland. With this Massenet managed to mix both the classics with medieval France. In the story Esclarmonde hates Roland for not recognising her, but later is unable to see through Rolands black armour. In the end the two find each other just the same.