Samson et Dalila is the only title that comes to mind when we think of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) as a composer of operas. However the composer wrote up to twelve works in this genre which are rarely, if ever, performed or recorded. Thus, not surprisingly, this disc is a world premiere in presenting the ballet music of Ascanio, Etienne Marcel and Les Barbares.
In Henry VIII (1883), Saint-Saëns portrays the marital ambitions and jealousies of the king and his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn; Ascanio (1890) is an account of the intrigues at the court of Francis I in 16th century Paris; Paris is also the location for Etienne Marcel (1879) which explores the reestablishment of the city council after the Commune; and Les Barbares (1901) goes back to the conflicts between the from Gallo-Roman warriors and the barbarians 105 years before Christ.
Despite such gruesome subject matter, Saint-Saëns had to comply with the custom of the time and provide opportunities for celebratory music, including the obligatory ballet. Thus, in this recording – with excellent technical quality and carefully prepared presentation, as is the standard with the Melba label – we hear two sections from the rustic festival that closes the second act of Henry VIII, twelve dances featuring the gods at Olympus in the third act of Ascanio, six folk dances that open the third act of Etienne Marcel, as well as the prologue of Les Barbares and three of the numbers in the third act ballet.
The music, as is so typical of Saint-Saëns, is always elegant, refined, translucent, has stuck, and reveals the deep knowledge that this man had of the orchestra: listen, for example, to the lovely duo of flute and cello in the Cupid variation in Ascanio, or the wagnerian prologue to Les Barbares. And the same qualities define the performance by Orchestra Victoria – a group founded in 1969 to fulfill the needs of Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet – and the French conductor Guillaume Tourniaire. There is no need to know this music to appreciate that they are playing with conviction.