Camille Saint-Saëns: Proserpine, R. 292
Véronique Gens (Proserpine), Marie-Adeline Henry (Angiola), Frédéric Antoun (Sabatino), Andrew Foster-Williams (Squarocca), Jean Teitgen (Renzo), Mathias Vidal (Orlando), Philippe-Nicolas Martin (Ercole), Artavazd Sargsyan (Filippo, Gil), Clémence Tilquin (A nun), Flemish Radio Choir, Edward Caswell (choir master), Munich Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer (conductor)
Recording: Prinzregententheater, Munich, Germany (October 7 and 9, 2016) – 94’50
2 CDs Ediciones Singulares ES 1027 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Book in French and English
Camille Saint-Saëns’ Proserpine was not without flurries of commentary after its opening night on March 14, 1887 at the Opéra-Comique. As cited in the text, “...many critics judged the work to be ‘composite’”, this claim is unquestionably apropos. This drame lyrique is an economical construct with no wasted time...such brevity anticipates Massenet’s Thérèse. Some skeptics felt Proserpine delivered heavier on a ‘Wagnerian’ scale versus full devotion to the French flag. While true, the opera also culls from a number of sources, rendering the music with opalescent fascination.
What makes this recording so irresistible is the quality of voice in the leading female role. Saint-Saëns called for a Falcon soprano (i.e. Les Huguenots’ Valentine), a requisite which was then losing steam toward the end of the 19th century...until now. Véronique Gens embodies all qualities of a French voice to address us as the most impressionable Proserpine: smoky voice, bounteous quality, dulcet wisps, dramatic pitch, sprinkled coloratura (i.e. Thomas’ Philine) and powerful sustenance. While Frédéric Antoun’s tessitura nestles comfortably inside his Sabatino with a natural, unembellished tone, his friend, Renzo (Jean Teitgen), gives unwavering commentary and stabilization through his deep bass register.
Ulf Schirmer’s direction enlivens each of the four acts that contains completely different textures. Saint-Saëns’ “Prélude” immediately introduces us to one of multitudinous leitmotifs: they brush forward at a feverish, albeit occasionally clandestine, pace, and the Parisian is relentless with astute reminders.
If Act I entrées Proserpine’s orgy and a grand opéra Meyerbeerian send-off, the antithesis trumps with sacred exposure inside Act II (the convent.) Here, Saint-Saëns composed some of his most celestial, moving music: the orchestra shimmers with resplendent arpeggios, ushering in the sacred “Ave Maria.” Strong “bravos” go to the Flemish Radio Choir, particularly to the two trios (three girls and three novices.) Their dialoguing eventually blends into a full-standing choral response. The music is emotional and bounteous beyond comprehension. This is also where we discover Proserpine’s version of “Micaëla”, Angiola; Marie-Adeline Henry cradles her overall character with genuine warmth and resonant decorum (though she really stands up to Proserpine in the conclusive tumult.)
Tables shift upon entering Act III with a saucy tarantella and a band of gypsies. Though heard in the opening act, it is here Andrew Foster-Williams’ Squarocca lands the spotlight for a minute or two with his “La Chanson des ivrognes”, trending back to a Faustian Méphistophélès: unfortunately, the springy 3/4 music gets diluted with Mr. Foster-Williams’ wobbly baritone voice; if there’s one weak link to this recording, it rests in his hands.
Saint-Saëns was at the peak of his orchestral prowess during the Proserpine writing; therefore, it comes as no surprise that he would introduce, a “symphonic” word, similar in scope to the “Introduction symphonique” from Les Barbares: the “Entracte” bristles with anxiousness and testiness, and it brilliantly summarizes the music heard thus far.
Those who have an affinity for Samson et Dalila will discover Camille Saint-Saëns continuing to explore alternative musical dimensions by incorporating old and new “schools of thought” inside Proserpine. Grand from beginning to end.
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