The vocality of Sibyl Sanderson in Massenet’s Manon and Esclarmonde

Thompson, T. D. (2016) The vocality of Sibyl Sanderson in Massenet’s Manon and Esclarmonde. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


This thesis explores how Sibyl Sanderson influenced Massenet’s operas Manon and Esclarmonde from the perspective of vocality, in some cases resulting in the composer making changes to the score. Research and analysis includes the study of manuscripts, annotated scores, correspondence, memoirs, pedagogic treatises, reception history, and practice. From the opposite angle, it also attempts to identify the existence and extent of any effects that performing these roles had on Sanderson. By the time of her association with Massenet, Sibyl Sanderson was a successful, young stage performer; she became one of Massenet’s primary collaborators. Documents relative to these operas suggest that the soprano’s partnership with the composer could classify her not only as an interpreter, but also as a co-creator and re-creator of these roles, respectively. Massenet afforded her credit as co-author in Esclarmonde, by including her signature on the manuscript. Her impact on Manon is evidenced through comparison of the role as sung by Sanderson versus the vocal lines used by prior and later interpreters of the role. Manon underwent significant revisions because of Sanderson. The first changes were made for her 1888 début in Brussels, and include difficult melismatic passages, increased quantity and duration of high notes, and several other revisions. One contribution to knowledge within this thesis is discussion of a revision in the 1887 manuscript, which was not included in the 1895 Nouvelle Édition, and was not addressed in previous musicological discourse. There has been conjecture about the intended recipient of the ‘Fabliau,’ the third-act aria that Massenet wrote in 1894 to replace the ‘Gavotte.’ The aria premiered in 1898, sung by Georgette Bréjean-Gravière (later Bréjean-Silver). Present research has enhanced existing arguments that the aria was intended for the dedicatee, Mlle Bréjean-Gravière. Esclarmonde was written for Sanderson’s voice to showcase her extraordinary high notes, virtuosic coloratura, and physical beauty. It could be considered one of the most demanding roles in opera, as evidenced by measured analyses within this thesis. Since she created the role, Esclarmonde has not achieved equivalent success. Through analysis of previously unexplored material, especially from the US, as well as by refuting some existing unsubstantiated claims, and by examining available sources from different perspectives, (such as quantified analyses of the roles), Sibyl Sanderson’s influence on Manon and Esclarmonde has been confirmed and support of such belief enhanced.

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