An opera by Massenet with no significant women's roles and nobody in love? The idea seems almost preposterous, given that Massenet's writing is possibly the most sensual of all Romantic opera composers, and almost invariably, his female characters are the central figures, against whom the male characters react. Some have suggested that Massenet was attracted to the libretto not only because of the variety it offered (and certainly he was a lover of variety) but because it also gave him a chance to show his critics that he was capable more than ardent, sentimental love stories and dazzling spectacles.
This first of Massenet's Monte Carlo operas was a sensational success there and in Paris, though far less so overseas and today it is remembered mostly as a curiosity -- the famous soprano Mary Garden decided that the title role called for the "naive spiritual beauty" that she could deliver far better than a mere tenor, and it became her favorite role, nearly causing her to convert to Catholicism. (Worldly concerns were allowed to enter her portrayal: According to one story, she trained the monastery donkey to raise its ears when she was singing and lower them when anybody else sang.) Massenet himself was more polite in public than in private comments but resigned to this preempting of his vision.
While the work is fully Romantic, it is appropriately more austere and much more focused on character than on mood. Despite the religious theme, Massenet could not resist the temptation to poke fun at artistic pretensions, much the same way that he made fun of the stepmother's and sisters' social pretensions in Cendrillon. The music is less uproarious than that of more pointed musical satirists such as Offenbach, but as in Cendrillon, it provides a mild and refreshing contrast to music and drama that could have become altogether too syrupy.
Speaking of syrupy, Massenet spun a romantic story of how the work originated, one whose veracity has long been questioned. After his rise to fame, he was so inundated with librettos that he told his concierge not to accept any unsolicited manuscripts. However, as he was leaving his Paris home for Egreville to recuperate from illness, the postman handed him a package, which he stuck in his pocket. Since he had nothing better to do on the train, he read the anonymous manuscript, which turned out to be the work of Professor Maurice Lena, an old friend. He invited Lena to his Egreville house when the music was completed, but since he had no piano and Lena could not read music, the librettist was unable to hear or envision it. That evening, though, they were taking a stroll and when they passed a church, Massenet was inspired to suggest that they go in and he would play excerpts from the score on the church organ. The story has as many holes as the typical opera plot, but beautifully illustrates Massenet's sensibilities.