Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Click on the image for higher
To remedy this, two initiatives are being
taken, almost in parallel in Italy: the major publisher of books dealing with music has just issued a monumental monograph Camille
Saint-Saëns: il Re degli spiriti musicaliby Giuseppe Clericetti
(540pp, Zecchini Editore, 33 euros) — a key reference book for anyone who
wants to study the composer, and theVenice based Centre de Musique Romantinque Française is running aFestival (24 September until 3 November 2016) with
eight concerts ofchamber music in the lagoon and a rare opera Proserpine (in concertform) at the Munich Prinzregententheater and at the Versailles Opéra. In another article, I will report on the concerts, but
here I am reviewingProserpine as I saw and heard it on 9
October 2016 in Munich.
Saint-Saëns composed thirteen operas. Proserpine had its premiere
at the Opéra Comique in 1887 and is chronologically half-way through Saint-Saëns'
operas. It is called a drame lyrique, following the style of the time when the French drame lyrique was
attempting a different way as juxtaposed with the late developments of Italianmelodrama and theWagnerian music drama which in France had a large and growing number of followers.
The plot, based on a
gruesome but successful play, has nothing to do withGreek mythology. Even if set in the Italian Renaissance (considered vicious and corrupt), it well reflects the French
Third Republic and its intrigues. It deals with a triangle: although
several characters are on stage, three are the key: Prosepine, an ageing courtesan
who has been the longtime mistress of young, strong and attractive Sabatino; Sabatino himself, and Angiola (a young girl just out
of convent, where she was sent to be educated). Sabatino falls in love for
Angiola. Proserpine wants, of course, to stop this and have Sabatino just
for herself. With the help of a devious street criminal, Squarocca,
she sets a trap
for Sabatino and Angiola and attempts to stab Angiola to death. She is not successful and, in front of the failure of the plot and
of her entire life, she commits suicide.
The score gives substance to a poorqualitylibretto, and the even more truculent play underlying it. Saint-Saëns worked
for a long time on
the music with the objective of making a fusion of traditional French drame lyrique and Wagnerian musik
drama. The vocal part is mostly based onrecitative or declamation sliding to arioso and even duets and trios. Underneath is an orchestral symphonic carpet and a pure symphonicintermezzo at the end of the third act — in my view the opera's best
The principals (Véronique Gens as Proserpine, Marie Adeline Henry as Angiola,
Frédérique Antoun as Sabatino and Andrew Foster Williams as Squarocca)
have importantvoices. In particular, Véronique Gens is making a good transitino
from Mozart roles — I remember her as a magnificent Donna Elvira — to more dramatic late nineteenth centuryparts. Frédérique Antoun is a real discovery even though only a few
months ago I had heard him in Salzburg in one of the fifteen roles ofThomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel. In Proserpine he
provides a realcoup de théâtre with his cleartimbre and his elegant middle rangeregister.