Who could name, off the top of their head, more than a couple of the thirteen operas that Saint-Saëns composed during his long and fruitful life? – Certainly not me. Even though Samson et Dalila is in the repertoire of many opera companies and has been recorded a number of times, it is probably only the aria ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ and the exciting orchestral ‘Bacchanale’ that are likely to be familiar to most people. That alone makes this latest Melba release one of exceptional interest as, inexplicably, most of the music on the disc is receiving here its first ever recording.
For much of the 19th century any new opera performed at the Paris Opéra was required to include a ballet sequence, usually during the second Act, something that famously caused Wagner considerable difficulty when Tannhäuser was staged there in 1861. For a fastidious composer like Saint-Saëns the production of engaging and wonderfully melodic divertissements was no problem as all the music on this brilliant SACD confirms.
The programme opens with two delightfully contrasted dances from Henry VIII that perfectly encapsulate the composer’s cultivated craftsmanship and scintillating orchestration. Both are performed with a combination of supreme elegance and winning verve by Orchestra Victoria, while Guillaume Tourniaire’s sympathetic conducting seems to be perfectly attuned to interpretation of this genre.
Ascanio is an opera set in Paris in 1539 concerning an incident involving the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini during his time at the court of François I. In the opera’s third act there is a lavish entertainment for the kings of Spain and France set in the palace of Fontainebleau. In this extensive divertissement Saint-Saëns not only gave more than a nod to French baroque style and forms but also composed some of the most colourful and attractive music to be heard on this recording. Each of the twelve dances, in which the gods and goddesses of antiquity appear, is a miniature gem that entrances the ear and provides countless opportunities for Orchestra Victoria both individually and collectively to show their mettle.
Another long forgotten grand opera Etienne Marcel with its patriotic and revolutionary themes gives us an entertainment of six dances from the third act. Tchaikovsky had a low opinion of this opera and in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, wrote, “it is a completely insignificant, even undistinguished work. It's banal, dry, boring, shameless, and without any character.” Whilst that damming critique may be true of the opera as a whole it could hardly be levelled at these lively dances that even include a ‘Valse’ worthy of Tchaikovsky himself.
Les Barbares composed in 1900-1901 and intended for performance in the Roman amphitheatre in Orange brings a much darker vein to the proceedings. This tale of conquest, sacrifice and revenge set in 105 BC opens with a long (15’15”) and imposing ‘Prologue’ of great solemnity but also much beauty. The gentle prelude to the work’s third act follows before the thrilling ‘Air de Ballet’ and ‘Farandole’ end these performances in a rousing and celebratory conclusion.
Phil Rowlands and the recording team have achieved an exceptionally vivid and immediate sound in the warm acoustic of the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University; a venue that seems to provide an ideal ambience for this music. The surround channels are used, discretely but effectively, for off-stage horn and trumpet calls in Ascanio and Les Barbares. The presentation of the disc is up to Melba’s usual exacting standards and includes scholarly notes by the musicologist Hugh Macdonald.
This is one of those recordings that, from the moment the first notes emerge from your speakers, you know is going to be a winner, and for lovers of 19th century ballet music it will surely be a mandatory acquisition.
A top recommendation of this SACD is undoubtedly warranted.