Saint-Saëns’ Undiscovered Opera

Le Timbre d'argent

awardSAINT-SAËNS: Le Timbre d’argent / Hélène Guilmette, sop (Hélène); Jodie Devos, sop (Rosa); Edgardas Montvidas, ten (Conrad); Yu Shao, ten (Bénédict); Tassis Christoyannis, bar (Spiridion); Jean-Yves Ravoux, ten (Patrick); Matthieu Chapuis, ten (Frantz); accentus; Les Siècles; François-Xavier Roth, cond / Bru Zane BZ1041

Poor Saint-Saëns! Here he was at age 28, already a dazzling organ and piano virtuoso whose works for those two instruments were selling like hotcakes among musicians, when he decided that he wanted to write an opera—which he had of course never done before—and a comic opera at that. He chose a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré which had already been turned down by three composers, Xavier Boisselot, Henri Litolff and Charles Gounod, wrote the opera quite speedily (it only took him two months), and started shopping it around.

Timbre d'argentTo no avail. Impresario Leon Carvalho took two YEARS before he even deigned to hear the score. When he did he declared himself “quite entranced,” but, as Saint-Saëns later recalled, he insisted on turning the stage production into a traveling circus complete with freaks, wild animals, and a huge aquarium where the soprano would have to dive to retrieve the bell. The composer fought all of this. Eventually it was produced, but in a truncated form, and only given 18 performances before it disappeared…for a very long time. The composer finally got a real stage production of the whole thing—greatly revised—in 1904-05 in Germany. It then showed up in February 1907 at Monte Carlo for three measly performances, only to see it disappear again. The last performance during the composer’s lifetime was given in Brussels in March 1914. It was a success. And then, Archduke Ferdinand was shot and the world plunged into a long, bloody and pointless war for four years, during which time Le Timbre d’argent pretty much disappeared.

The plot revolves around a poor painter living in a garret on Christmas Eve, complaining of his poverty—shades of La Bohème!—despite the support of his friend Bénédict, his doctor Spiridion and his sweetheart Hélène. Fascinated by a dancer who he painted as the enchantress Circe, Conrad accuses Spiridion of bringing him bad luck and then faints. In his dream, he sees his Circe dancing and meets Spiridion, who brings him a silver bell. Every time he rings it, he will gain riches, but a loved one will die. When Conrad wakes up he rings the bell; a shower of gold promptly appears, but Hélène’s father collapses and dies.

In Act II, another dancer, Fiammetta, receives gifts from Conrad and Spiiridion, the latter now a marquis. They each promise her a palace and challenge each other at the gambling table. Conrad loses and is furious, but plunders the feast rather than ring the silver bell. By Act III, Hélène and her sister Rosa are living in a cottage that Conrad bought for them. Rosa is getting ready for her marriage to Bénédict; Conrad has buried the bell in the garden, but Spiridion and Fiammetta tempt him to use itm inviting him to the wedding to dance. Conrad digs up the bell, rings it, and Bénédict falls dead.

In the last act, we learn that Conrad has thrown the bell into a lake but is drawn to the lake by sirens. Spiridion conjures up a ballet in which Circe gives a dazzling performance. Conrad invokes Hélène as Bénédict’s ghost hands him the bell, but this time Conrad finds the strength to shatter and destroy it. Then, in his studio, he really does wake up from his dream, proposes marriage to Hélène and accepts his modest and laborious destiny.

Listening to the music of this opera is a fascinating experience. The only way you can tell that it was written by Saint-Saëns is that the quality of the musical invention is several miles above Auber, Boieldieu and Adam, clever composers though they were, and even better than Gounod, good as he was. Most of the score sounds wholly original, owing nothing to any other composer while still being appropriately cheerful for a comic opera (albeit a comic opera with a dark twist) except for two moments. The very opening of the overture sounds remarkably like the opening of Berlioz’ Les Troyens, and at two points in track 3 of the first CD one hears the use of violas playing strophic chords, much like those that Meyerbeer used to introduce Marcel in Les Huguenots. Otherwise, none of it sounds like anyone else, yet it doesn’t really sound like any other music by Saint-Saëns. It is cheerful and upbeat for the most part, as remote from Samson et Dalila as you can possibly imagine, but like that later opera the scenes are continuous; it is composed almost like a comic symphony as much as like a comic opera. Since there is no spoken dialogue, everything is sung, with arias and duets being folded into the continuous musical development (such as the Hélène-Rosa duet in Act I). The orchestration is also very light and transparent, another difference from Samson. The only later music by Saint-Saëns to which it can be compared are the Danse Macabre and a couple of the more lighthearted pieces in Carnival of the Animals.

But this is exactly why, I believe, the opera bombed when it was first produced. Despite the charming quality of the music, which is inescapable, audiences wanted the music to stop dead while so-and-so sang an aria or a couple of singers sang a duet. They also didn’t like the subtlety of the music any more than they responded to the subtlety of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini when it was first given. Yet, ironically, Le Timbre a’argent shares with Benvenuto Cellini a youthful energy that neither composer was able to recapture in later works. I can just hear one of my close online opera-loving friends bitch and complain about Bénédict’s superb first-act aria, “Si je le suis.” Yes, it has a melody, but not an easily memorable one; yes, it has two high notes, but not explosive ones held for roughly 10 seconds. The conventional opera-lover would pan this as too cerebral, but I absolutely love it. This is how a light French opera should be written.

I wonder if Wagner’s music had any influence on Saint-Saëns in the creation of this score. Even though Die Meistersinger, his only comedy, wasn’t written until 1868, four years after Le Timbre d’argent, he was clearly the only composer who wrote continuous operatic acts that never stopped once the musical flow commenced. Living in France, Saint-Saëns had to be familiar with his Tannhäuser and possibly even Lohengrin by 1864, as Berlioz was.

Despite the Hoffmanesque twist of the magic bell that gives money but kills loved ones, there isn’t very much “dark” music in this score. One of the few such moments occurs near the end of Act I, in Spiridion’s music when he gives Conrad the bell and he rings it for the first time—but then the chorus comes in with louder, faster music to close out the act. There is, however, quite a bit of slower, more reflective music in Act II, particularly in the long Conrad-Bénédict duet—which includes an extended violin solo which leads directly, without a break, into Hélène’s long aria, “Le Bonheur est chose légère,” which is a very tricky aria to sing (it doesn’t sound hard, but has some very odd passages in it, and a trill that comes out of nowhere, that are not terribly easy to negotiate).

Yet the subtlety and continuity of the music are exactly what mitigate against it as a crowd-pleaser for most opera audiences. Without any breaks for applause, even after Spiridion’s marvelously bouncy comic aria near the end of Act II (the one piece in the opera that sounds the most like Offenbach), the average knucklehead operagoer would either not know where to applaud or, worse yet, applaud over the music, only to be “shushed” by the conductor or one of the singers so that they can hear what comes next. Knucklehead audiences don’t like being shown up as knuckleheads. But the music does indeed go on. The Act II finale reprises the Les Troyens-like music of the opening of the overture but then goes on in an entirely different manner; it is a rousing five-minute piece that, again, would be a definite crowd-pleaser, and at least this time they can applaud their heads off when it’s finished, but only there at the ends of acts. Part of Act II, particularly the music surrounding and following Conrad’s aria “Quel trouble s’empare,” sounds a lot like Les Contes d’Hoffmann, but since that opera was written much later the influence would be the other way around.

As for the cast, it is uniformly excellent, my only (small) complaint being that the voices of Conrad (Edgardas Montvidas) and Bénédict (Yu Shao) sound eerily alike. Though her role is not large, soprano Hélène Guilmette sings just as well here as she did as Princess Laoula in the DVD of Chabrier’s L’Étoile opposite Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Lazuli, and the other soprano, Jodie Devos, has an equally lovely voice but a somewhat darker tone. Yet, as is often the case (sorry to my opera-loving friends who thinks that the singers are the most important part of an opera performance), it is François-Xavier Roth’s impeccable and, at times, magical-sounding conducting that really makes this performance work. Everything in the score falls into place under his skilled hands, yet not a single detail is left to chance. The music blooms, recedes, and then blooms again like a garden going through a fast-paced sequence of flowers opening in the morning and closing at night. Saint-Saëns was right. This IS a great little opera. There are so many subtleties and musical delights in this score that even the attentive ear may have trouble catching them all in the first listening, yet even a casual listener will find it charming. In Act II, Saint-Saëns got around the stupid convention of putting a ballet into an opera by working it into the plot of the model playing Circe actually dancing—and here, too, the end of the ballet music is not a crashing chord but blended into the succeeding scene via a wonderful two-bar transition. If only Massenet had paid attention to this score, he might not have written so much boring, bombastic music in Manon, Thaïs and Hérodiade.

This is a terrific surprise and an opera well worth investigating.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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