Camille Saint-Saëns: Les Barbares
Catherine Hunold (Floria), Julia Gertseva (Livie), Edgaras Montvidas (Marcomir), Jean Teitgen (Le Récitant, Scaurus), Shawn Mathey (Le Veilleur), Philippe Rouillon (Hildibrath, Le Grand Sacrificateur), Tigran Guiragosyan (Premier Habitant), Laurent Pouliaude (Second Habitant), Ghezlane Hanzazi (Une Femme), Chœur Lyrique et Orchestre Symphonique Saint-Etienne Loire, Laurent Touche (Chorus Master), Laurent Campellone (Conductor)
Recording: l’Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne, France (February 14-17, 2014) – 120’22
Ediciones Singulares #ES 1017 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in French and English
If remaining vestiges of Camille Saint-Saën’s operatic œuvres rest only with Samson et Dalila (1877), then we’re fortunate with just that. But for a man who indelibly touched everything inside the académie de musique classique, opera wasn’t particularly kind to him: barring Samson, none of his 11 other operas retained repertoire status. A revival will occasionally flicker, but the coffers have pretty much run dry; hence, the reasoning of placing more prominence on Les Barbares because it is truly a masterful work in so many ways. Intuitive Ediciones Singulares (ES) has uncovered yet another cultured pearl that features a powerful cast under Laurent Campellone’s percipient direction.
Saint-Saëns was the quintessential Frenchman: traditionalist, unyielding and uncompromising in retaining true classical form, bent on Mozart and Haydn fundamentalisms, embracing (at first) of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz progressions only to revoke their form in later years by returning to conservative structures. Even though the turn-of-the-century opened the doors on impressionistic clauses by Debussy and Ravel and verismo elements of Puccini and Charpentier (Louise)(1900), Saint-Saëns didn’t acquiesce, rather unabashedly, he “bucked the trend.” For Saint-Saëns, Les Barbares emerged as a champion with the successful opening at the Palais Garnier on October 23, 1901.
A tragédie lyrique in three acts, Les Barbares follows inside the parenthesis of Lully, Rameau and Gluck. Similar to a Greek tragedy, we find Saint-Saëns constructing a symphonie as the “Prologue.” This important backdrop houses Jean Teitgen’s tenured bass voice as a dramatic narrative to paraphrase the unfolding story. Within this musical outline, we hear a few clandestine motifs surfacing (i.e. “Floria/Marcomir Love Theme” – only a couple bars), the most prominent being a grandiose re digest of “Livie’s Lament” (“Ô noble époux qu’a trahi la fortune” from Act III) with its profusely sullen music. This melody line frequently pops up, but it arrives in greater abstract variations and hair-splitting segments.
Suddenly, the Livie morose dialogue turns around and is trumped by a revelry of horn and trumpet, suggesting a Wagnerian fold with capricious woodwind dashes of Berlioz. Saint-Saëns’ music is steeped in antiquity. Opening measures create attenuated undulations similarly found in the initiating Hebrew lament from Samson et Dalila. Upon closer dissection, Saint-Saëns created this beautifully magnificent outline of the opera in the “Introduction symphonique” and the “Conclusion symphonique”; it is an extraordinary piece.
After a marvelous performance as Anahita in ES’ recording of Le Mage (Read here), Catherine Hunold returns in the role of Floria, the Roman vestalis maxima of Arausio (present day city of Orange, France.) Her voice engenders authority and reverent collective reasoning with soaring lines akin to Massenet’s Le Mage. Floria’s sister, Livie, is sung by Julia Gertseva who gives broody life to the character with darkened mezzo coloring and powerfully rich notes.
Marcomir, succumbed by Floria’s pyrotechnics and, more importantly, her beauty, is the leader of the repulsive Barbarians. Sung in brilliantine fashion, Edgaras Montvidas adds his own frisson to the Teutonic tyrant with gleaming theatricality. The Marcomir/Floria duet, “Ah! Vesta m’abandonne”, is fleeting yet exhilarating. Shawn Mathey’s Watchman helps channel the narrative between protagonists and choral responses. The pathway is clean and clarion.
Condensed into three acts Les Barbares could be mistaken for grand opéra since Saint-Saëns was influenced by Meyerbeer’s writings and had affections for ballet music. Ushering in the two-part dance sequence is the “Entrée des joueurs de flûte” replete with percussive clappers, that’s rhythmically similar to Pierné’s more modernistic “La Leçon de flûte de Pan” from Cydalise et le chèvre pied (1915-completion.) A beautiful, classical women’s choral interlude bridges and opens the pages to Saint-Saëns’ mythological, magical balletic music. Pursuant is a Provençe-cadenced “Farandole” that helps roll out the carpet for Philippe Rouillon as the opera’s High Priest.
Les Barbares demonstrates Saint-Saëns' unwavering mantra: voice comes first, orchestra comes second. The orchestra must support and assist in flourishing the voice. In the grand scheme of things, the score is bathed in lyrical wonders of Late Romantic music. Les Barbares moves like a sweeping cinematic piece with pithy construct, unencumbered plot, little fluff, economized razzle dazzle, percussive touches to suggest and reveal yet no overindulgences. Though it does not contain memorable arias or lasting ensembles, the work powerfully represents those profound desires and ardent beliefs that Saint-Saëns held near and dear to his heart.
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