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Lost Legacy

Everyone knows Samson et Dalila, but what about Ascanio, Henry VIII and Phryné? HUGH MACDONALD samples the seldom-heard musical riches of Camille Saint-Saëns's other operas.

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A rehearsal for Saint-Saëns's Barbares in 1901, with the composer, librettist Pierre-Barthélemy Gheusi, director Pedro Gailhard, librettist Victorien Sardou and René Joly
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2014
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Camille Saint-Saëns
© akg-images 2014
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Set design for Saint-Saëns’s comic opera Phryné, which had its world premiere at the Opéra Comique in 1893
© akg-images/De Agostini Picture Library 2014

Versatility in a composer comes at a price. Single-mindedness toward opera gave us Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, while all-roundedness — composing symphonies, songs, chamber music, church music, piano music, ballet, concertos, etc., as well as opera — gave us Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Saint-Saëns, three men close in age and similar in outlook, who pursued busy international careers and composed at a steady rate in all genres. Each of these three is represented in the opera repertoire by one well-known opera — Eugene Onegin, Rusalka and Samson et Dalila, respectivelywhile their other near-dozen operas languish in obscurity. The Queen of Spades comes close to giving Tchaikovsky a score of two hits, but their other nine or ten operas are mothballed, to be excavated, if at all, as special rarities.

In Saint-Saëns's case, the other eleven operas are mostly dead and buried, even in France. How can this be? He was highly intelligent and articulate, he had an incomparable technique, and his muse was never asleep. He wrote grand opera, opéra comique, open-air spectaculars, one-act comedies, even a film score. He was familiar with new musical styles and new theories about the stage; he was not always in sympathy with them, but he thought and wrote about them in some depth. He traveled widely, studied ancient civilizations, science and astronomy and wrote plays. He was a virtuoso pianist, playing his own concertos into his eighties; he was organist, conductor, critic, impresario and animateur. In short, there was no musical activity to which he did not contribute.

Such a man ought to have been able to judge and shape a libretto; he should have had a sense of what works onstage, and of the value of timing, character, comedy and spectacle; how to write for the voice and orchestrate for opera. He should have had a feel for what his audience would appreciate, and an understanding of the role of money and patronage in opera.

The truth is that Saint-Saëns did indeed have all these skills. How, then, could Samson be an eternal favorite and all the others flops? Is Samson the only one of the twelve that works in the theater, contains recognizable arias or conveys a broader message? Or is it, too, a dud that has somehow escaped the doom of the others? It has been criticized for being too oratorio-like, for the hypocrisy of the antiheroine's passion, for the fake nastiness of Abimélech, and for leaving too little time for the temple actually to collapse, but the bacchanale, the opening chorus and the whole of the masterly Act II will ensure its longer sojourn on our stages.  

The dismal fate of the other operas seems to be more an accident of history than a critical judgment made by posterity. During Saint-Saëns's long life, his operas were all reasonably, and sometimes very, successful. None failed so completely as, say, Massenet's Mage. The record of revivals and provincial or foreign performances is impressive. Étienne Marcel, which had its premiere in Lyon in 1879, was heard in Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Algiers and Monte Carlo; Phryné, first heard at the Opéra Comique in 1893, ran for many months there and was taken up in the Hague, Lyon, Stockholm, Ghent, Geneva, St. Petersburg, Aix-en-Provence, Brussels and Milan. Henry VIII had an even wider international trajectory, remaining in the Opéra's repertoire for thirty-five years.

Saint-Saëns died in Algiers in December 1921, and all these operas died with him. Ascanio, his five-act opera from 1890, was revived at the Opéra in November 1921, but three days after the composer's death it was performed for the last time, never to be heard again. The last staging of Le Timbre d'Argent was in Brussels in 1914, the last of Étienne Marcel in Monte Carlo in 1918, the last of Proserpine in Lisbon in 1914, the last of L'Ancêtre in Monte Carlo in 1915, the last of Déjanire in Chicago in 1915.

"Son rôle cessa avec sa vie," wrote music critic André Cœuroy. The tastes of the interwar years could not have diverged more sharply from the opera world of Saint-Saëns and Massenet, and although the latter clung to the side of the ship with Manon and Werther, the former took a serious plunge. As its contribution to the centennial of Saint-Saëns's birth in 1935, the Revue Musicale published an assessment by Robert Bernard that essentially denied him any greatness at all: "Who would hesitate to sacrifice Saint-Saëns's entire œuvre for a single page of the Saint Matthew Passion, of Don Giovanni, of any Beethoven quartet, of Dichterliebeor of Boris Godunov?

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La Princesse Jaune at the Buxton Festival, 2013, with Ryan MacPherson (Kornélis) in a staging directed by Francis Matthews
© Robert Workman 2014

Phryné was revived in Cairo in 1938, but otherwise only five of these operas have enjoyed the luxury of even a single revival. Étienne Marcel was heard in Montpellier in concert in July 1994; the one-act Princesse Jaune reappeared at the Opéra Comique in 1935 and 1946 and has occasionally been staged in recent years, in New York, in concert in 2001, as well as at the Comique in 2004, in Berlin (2005), Siena (2010) and Buxton (2013). There is also an excellent Chandos recording (2000). Hélène was revived in Prague in 2008, conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire, who subsequently recorded it for Melba Records. Henry VIII was staged in San Diego in 1983, then in Compiègne in 1991, a production that yielded a DVD and a revival, with Montserrat Caballé singing the Queen, in Barcelona in 2002. Les Barbares was revived for the first time in a concert performance as recently as February of this year, at Opéra Théâtre de St. Étienne, France.

When only four out of a composer's twelve operas have been recorded (and the DVD of Henry VIII is definitely below par), how are inquiring cognoscenti to know whether the works are any good? How does Grove Music Online arrive at the conclusion that Saint-Saëns's operas are "deficient in theatrical effect," when their theatrical effect, in most cases, has not been put to the test for a hundred years? Until such a test is possible, we can only work from the piano/vocal and orchestral scores, bearing in mind the usually enthusiastic reception of late-nineteenth-century witnesses. 

Even a cursory study reveals that all of these operas display musical invention and operatic skill of a high order. Perhaps the most fascinating is Saint-Saëns's first opera, Le Timbre d'Argent, composed in 1864 but not performed until 1877. It has much in common with Les Contes d'Hoffmann, for its libretto, like those of the Offenbach and of Faust, originated as a play in the early 1850s, the authors of all three being Bar­bier and Carré, the most expert and successful librettists of the Second Empire. In Le Timbre d'Argent, there is a Mephistophelean figure, like Counsellor Lindorf, who appears in various disguises and preys on the fatal yearnings of a highly emotional young man. There is a talisman, a silver bell, that may be rung at moments of crisis, but always at the cost of someone's life. A painting comes to life, and in one scene the stage is seen from the back, looking toward the audience. There are many theatrical conceits and transformations, all crying out for imaginative staging. 

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Simon Estes (Henry), Montserrat Caballé (Catharine of Aragon) and Nomeda Kazlaus (Anne Boleyn) in Henry VIII at the Liceu in Barcelona, 2002
© Antoni Bofill 2014

 Saint-Saëns thus started out with a very unusual opera whose music is always apt, never dull. There is no trace here of Meyerbeer, the mere mention of whose name is enough to damn innumerable works of the later nineteenth century (provided they are not by Verdi). Saint-Saëns's larger operas fall clearly into that category, with private passion at odds with communal strife, big ensemble set pieces, triangular love conflict, offstage effects, and ballet. But Henry VIII shows clearly how the recipe can be turned to advantage, for the opera is sturdily theatrical and very moving. Its visual splendor is matched by music of high craftsmanship, often with an English flavor. No one who heard the Queen's final solo, "Je ne te reverrai jamais," sung with profound poignancy by Ellie Dehn at the Bard Music Festival in 2012 could deny the masterly quality of the music. The choral writing, the big ensemble of the Synod scene, the subtle characterization of Henry (baritone) as a charming brute — all this would have audiences in thrall if one of the larger houses would take it on and stage it in style. 

Étienne Marcel is another historical grand opera, set in 1358 amid that century's eternal conflicts. The conventions are observed, with crowd scenes, processions, a cathedral scene and some ballet. The tone is dark, the action being driven by suspicion and conspiracy. There is a convincing network of motifs, an abundance of agitated music in line with the air of perpetual unrest, and a lovely aria for Béatrix in Act II, "Ô beaux rêves évanouis!" The love duet that follows is scarcely less striking, reminiscent of Dvorˇák in its expressive chromaticism.

The other grand operas are Proserpine, Ascanio, Les Barbares and L'Ancêtre, all set in specific times and places. Les Barbares is marred by its blatant Germanophobia, from which Saint-Saëns suffered acutely in his later years. Proserpine, set in the intrigues of sixteenth-century Florence, and L'Ancêtre, set in blood-soaked Corsica in Napoleon's time, offer a great variety of music of high quality without crossing into the territory of verismo that the subjects demanded. 

For Saint-Saëns was too much the classicist, too devoted to Mozart, to compose music of crudity or violence — which is why his two evocations of ancient Greece are more successful than those larger works in four or five acts. Phryné, composed for Sybil Sanderson in 1893, is a two-act opéra comique with a light, witty touch. Uncle and nephew vie for the love of Phryné, a beautiful courtesan, and the uncle is tricked into thinking an unveiled statue of Aphrodite is Phryné. The audience, too, was led to believe that they might see the glamorous Sanderson herself unveiled, which perhaps contributed to its successful run of 110 performances and many revivals in Saint-Saëns's lifetime. The score is a match for La Princesse Jaune in invention and wit. 

Hélène, in one act, takes a more earnest view of the Grecian world, with a searching exploration of Helen's motives in following Paris to Troy. Venus and Athena pull her conscience in opposite directions, and her agony is resolved, as we knew it would be, by the lure of love. The libretto is by Saint-Saëns himself, and although he was curious about the archaeology of Greek music, he made no attempt in these two operas to build on Greek scales or modes. Phryné and Hélène, with their sharply contrasting pictures of the Greek world, would make a fine double bill.

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Saint–Saëns's opera Déjanire in performance at Béziers Arena, above, in 1898
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2014

Saint-Saëns's last opera, Déjanire, composed for the open-air arena at Béziers, where vast forces and spectacular staging were called for, is probably beyond hope of revival, but of the larger works, Henry VIII and Ascanio should claim serious attention. The latter has a cleverly worked out plot set at the court of François I, with some excellent scenes and ensembles, two great soprano roles and Saint-Saëns's usual dexterity with voices and instruments.

Revival of these forgotten operas is perhaps not the first goal we should seek in the contemporary climate of stage-direction that favors familiar works in unexpected settings, rather than unfamiliar works in traditional settings. Much more effective would be a campaign to have these operas recorded, and recorded well, so that their musical richness could be heard at last, and reliable assessments of their theatrical viability could be made. The visionary in me can imagine a box set of twelve Saint-Saëns operas on CD, a feast for the world's opera-lovers to feed on for many years to come. spacer 

HUGH MACDONALD's Music in 1853: the Biography of a Year appeared in 2012, and his Bizet is to be published by Oxford University Press later this year. He is an advocate of opera in English and has written translations for English National Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and others. 

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