Camille Saint-Saëns: Le Timbre d’argent
Hélène Guilmette (Hélène), Jodie Devos (Rosa), Edgaras Montvidas (Conrad), Yu Shao (Bénédict), Tassis Christoyannis (Spiridion), Jean-Yves Ravoux (Patrick), Matthieu Chapuis (a beggar), accentus, Les Siècles, Christophe Grapperon (chorus master), François-Xavier Roth (conductor)
Recording: Philharmonie de Paris Studio, Paris (June 26-27, 2017) – 147’21
Bru Zane BZ1041 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in French and English
“...so it was love at first sight for me, for the orchestra, for the soloists who took up the challenge of recreating this work, which is really one of the most important operas in France.”
Camille Saint-Saëns’ long overlooked opera finally came to fruition when the Bru Zane entourage sojourned to the Salle Favart for six performances in 2017, then, a week later, venturing to Philharmonie’s Studio.
François-Xavier Roth’s enthusiasm towards Le Timbre d’argent isn’t surprising as evidenced in his subsequent illustration and complete preservation of Symphonie fantastique. This World Premiere Recording is rigorously orchestrated by Les Siècles in combination with accentus’ exemplary choral detail. Never has music been so sharply absolute.
Saint-Saëns’ first opera had a tumultuous evolution beginning in 1864. A panoply of vicissitudes not only led up to Le Timbre d’argent’s 1877 premiere (mere months ahead of Samson et Dalila), but it dragged on with several revisions until March 1914 in Brussels when the composer witnessed the last production in his lifetime. For a Frenchman who adhered to conventions of Classicism, Le Timbre d’argent was remarkably revolutionary for its time.
Theatrically, the staging is an operatic ordeal. Beginning with reality, then diving into the fantastical (even with sub flips), then returning to reality thereafter (in the “Final Scene”), the story surrounds the protagonist, Conrad, and the unfolding of his nightmarish dream in search of art, love, Nature and temptation. The twist, however is "The Silver Bell"...the death knell to a loved one. We find close boundaries to Les Contes d’Hoffmann, or, symphonically to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Saint-Saëns unabashedly commented “...there is no intrigue, and the piece would have little meaning if one did not perceive that its true subject is nothing else than the struggle of an artist’s soul against the vulgarities of life...” Interestingly enough, Saint-Saëns regarded this work as one of his finest.
Such a Faustian template takes shape through Conrad. Since singing Marcomir in Les Barbares back in 2014, Edgaras Montvidas hasn’t lost any of his form as he dramatically builds with torment in Act III: it generates apropos angst and tumult. His lines, while particularly taxing, are critical to the opera’s success and ultimate frisson. Hélène Guilmette, Conrad’s devotee, Hélène, sings with velvety purity and piousness with occasionally shrilly attacks on the high notes. Jodie Devos’ Rosa chirps away like a white dove... the tone is absolutely pristine with a gentle freshness dancing around like the lining of a silvery moon. Even though her betrothed, Bénédict, dies at the end of Act III, there’s plenty of time to enjoy listening to tenor Yu Shao’s beautifully hopeful music as his tessitura fluidly enraptures the score. Clearly, however, the predominant concentration of musical vocabulary is split between Conrad and Spiridion.
Loosely reminiscent to Bertram in Robert le Diable, Tassis Christoyannis’ Spiridion, by far, morphs into voluminous guises (i.e.Pantalone, Polycastro, Pippo, a bagpiper) as Saint-Saëns’ evil agent. M. Christoyannis, while having a gorgeous delivery, provides a lighter more empathetic weight, conjuring more benevolence. Compare this to, perhaps, the deeper qualities and sinister outlooks of John Relyea or Christian van Horn. Nevertheless, there’s a fond consistency of delivery and sensitiveness in the register.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ music is thick at times, even a scosche Wagnerian (much to the consternation of many of Saint-Saëns’ contemporaries) Das Rheingold in the opening of Act IV. But, at times, there are remarkable passages with lighter clauses: amiable brightness (ref: Bénédict’s lilting aria, “Demande à l’oiseau qui s’éveille”, the triumphant “L’humble papillon de nuit”), simplicity/softness (ref: the “Prière” duet in Act I which briefly returns truncated in Act IV), sparkling arrogance (ref: Spridion’s “Chanson napolitaine”), plaintive hopefulness (ref: Hélène's “Le bonheur est chose légère”), carefree, graduated dizziness (ref: “Carnival! Carnival!" – ending in a choral whirlpool which builds to a frenzy, such as in Bizet’s “Danse bohémienne” from La Jolie Fille de Perth). On the opposite end of the spectrum there is gravity to the music: somber soulfulness (ref: “L’oiseau perdu dans l’espace”) and sinister reaches grabbing towards M. Christoyannis’ lyrically powerful ballade, “Sur le sable brille”.
For an opera which Camille Saint-Saëns tinkered with (be it to appease impresarios or directors, or even at the advent of war) for over 40 years, Le Timbre d’argent has remarkable appeal, modern zest and energetic magnetism...full-flung operatic grandeur. It is one of the most impressive recordings this reviewer has critiqued inside the Bru Zane canon. Phantasmagorical and brilliant!
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