Surprising New Recording of Saint-Saëns’ Rare Opera

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SAINT-SAËNS: Proserpine / Veronique Gens, soprano (Proserpine); Marie-Adeline Henry, soprano (Angiola); Frédéric Antoun, tenor (Sabatino); Andrew Foster-Williams, baritone (Squarocca); Jean Teitgen, bass (Renzo); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Orlando); Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritone (Ercole); Artavazd Sargsyan, tenor (Filippo/Gil); Clémence Tilquin, soprano (Une religieuse); Flemish Radio Choir; Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor / Ediciones Singulaires ES1027 (live: Munich, October 7 & 9, 2016)

Camille Saint-Saëns is largely known in the opera world for his masterpiece, Samson et Dalila, but of course he wrote other operas, among them Henry VIII, Ascanio, L’Ancêtre, Déjanire, Phryné, Frédégonde, Les Barbares and Hélène, of which only the first-named has held the boards on even a semi-regular basis. The same is true of Proserpine (the title of which I initially misread as Prosperine, evidently confusing her with a character in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

Saint-Saëns claimed this was the most Wagnerian of his operas, but my reaction to the score was that it sounded like a much better-written Manon or Adriana Lecouvreur. The music is generally lightweight in character, the voices bouncing around in pointillistic counterpoint like bubbles in a glass of champagne. Moreover the plot, which concerns a courtesan named after a goddess, is as complicated and busy as anything in the opéra-comique genre. At just 95 minutes long, it is also an awkward length to stage. It’s a bit too long to pair with another one-acter and too short to stage alone.

A friend of mine once remarked that some of these unusual operas I’ve written about have plots so convoluted that they make Il Trovatore look like plain sailing. Such is the case with Proserpine. The Italian courtesan (yes, she’s Italian) is giving a grand feast in her palazzo, disappointed that Sabatino, who she is in love with, hasn’t come. But of course he shows up eventually with his pal Renzo, whose sister Angiola he plans to marry on one condition: that he get over his passion for Proserpine by finally getting her in the sack. But typical of women “in those days,” she pretends she doesn’t love him madly and, as a high-ticket whore, offers to give him her body but not her soul.

But this is where, as they used to say, “the plot thickens,” and boy does it get thick. First we are introduced to Squarocca, a jewel thief who has just been caught at her party pilfering the pearls; Proserpine drags him before her, giving him a choice between prison and the orgy. I’ll let you decide which one he picks. Learning that Sabatino is about to be married, she forces Squarocca to do her bidding. Meanwhile, Angiola is cooling her heels at a convent in Turin. Her brother Renzo is announced along with “a sinner,” who turns out to be Sabatino, having triumphed over the lure of hell by fornicating with Proserpine. (Perhaps this is the part Saint-Saëns thought was most like Wagner, as the plot device is remarkably similar to that of Tannhäuser.) The conversation between Angiola and Sabatino is broken by the arrival of a group of pilgrims (again, something like Tannhäuser). Don’t ask me why, but Squarocca is hidden among the pilgrims, and he worries about telling Proserpine how beautiful Angiola is because she might get horribly jealous.

In Act Three, gypsies are dancing a tarantella in the mountains where Proserpine, disguised as one of them, greets Squarocca to give his report. Naturally, she is furious at the news, but the now-loyal Squarocca has tampered with the harness on the carriage in which Renzo and Angiola are traveling so that it breaks down (conveniently) right near the gypsy camp. Proserpine calls on the goddess whose name she bears to punish them while Squarocca, for no apparent reason, strikes up a drunkard’s song in which the travelers—having duly broken down their carriage—join in and come to spend the night. Proserpine pretends to tell Angiola’s future.

In the last act Sabatino, in his apartment, looks forward to the marriage that will purify his soul, but of course Proserpine shows up ahead of Angiola. Thowing herself at her feet, she admits that she has always loved him and begs for his heart, but he tells her nothing doing. Proserpine hides herself to witness the scene when Angiola finally arrives; finally, unable to stand any more, she rushes out and tries to stab Angiola with a stiletto (they don’t say whether or not it was a stiletto heel of her shoe). Sabatino wards off the blow, however, upon which Proserpine stabs herself and dies, blessing the couple on their happy union. The End.

For the most part the singing is good but not always great. Of course Veronique Gens, in the title role, is exquisite, and tenor Frédéric Antoun, as Sabatino, has a lovely French tenor tone if a slightly loose vibrato. Basso Jean Tietgen, as Renzo, also has a bit of a flutter in the voice. Andrew Foster-Williams, as Squarocca, has a wobble you could drive s truck through. I can’t really say that any of them project a character per se, but this is very much in the “true” French style of opera singing popular in Saint-Saëns day (see my article on the “death” of “true” French style). There are some ariosos for the singers, but by and large this is an ensemble opera featuring ensemble singing. I was particularly struck by the truly lovely trio in Act Two featuring Angiola, Sabatino and Renzo, which morphs into an even greater quintet with chorus. The confrontation scene between Proserpine and Angiola (sung splendidly by Marie-Adeline Henry) at the end of Act Three will stand your hair on end.

Proserpine picThe bottom line? The music of Proserpine far exceeds the plot in quality. Of course the same thing is true of the afore-mentioned Il Trovatore and several other operas in the standard repertoire. Unfortunately the plot, in addition to being convoluted, has even less relevance to modern audiences than La Traviata, which is also about a courtesan in love with one of her conquests. I noted that the performances from which the recording was made were given in concert and not onstage. That was a wise decision. Proserpine possibly does deserve a revival in concert now and then, but once you read through the convoluted and dated plot you realize that it would just take too much time and energy to mount this thing on the stage, and from a dramatic angle it just isn’t worth it. Thus having it on a recording like this is probably the best thing, as is the case of Chabrier’s Le Roi Malgre Lui, undoubtedly the greatest operatic music ever written for a plot so twisted that even the composer hated it!

Thus, despite Foster-Williams’ horrid wobble, I recommend it on musical grounds. Conductor Ulf Schirmer, whose work I have praised in the past, keeps a firm grip on the magical, ever-morphing score, bringing out its full colors and rhythms with deftness and precision. Just think of it as a sort of symphonic treatment of the story with voices, and you’ll enjoy it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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