If you find it difficult to associate the impeccably tasteful, refined classicist who was Camille Saint-Saëns with the flamboyance of opera then you are in good company – his contemporaries struggled similarly and the thirteen operas he composed had little success, being for the most part quickly forgotten. Of the four excerpted on this disc, only one has received a performance in modern times, with others neglected for over a century. Melba’s voyage of discovery into these lost treasures has focussed on the ballet sequences which, according to tradition and audience expectation, animated the moments of celebration and high-spirits in French opera. Combined with the preludes and finales, they give us a vivid impression of the music that delighted the denizens of belle époque Paris.
Guillaume Tourniaire’s star has been firmly in the ascendant for the last decade, and he has lately made several critically-acclaimed recordings for Melba with regional Australian orchestras (including a world premiere of Saint-Saëns’ opera Hélène). He draws a fine, highly-charged performance of great energy, dynamics and charm from the forces of Orchestra Victoria. Melba’s recording quality (from the CD layer of this multi-channel SACD) is, once again, exceptional, and so natural that I regularly found myself surprised when it sounded less like I expected it to and more like it should! This is hugely appealing music; offering fascinating stylistic references to its baroque and medieval themes, the high-spiritedness only recedes for the closing sequence of excerpts from Les Barbares, a bloodthirsty tale of Ancient Rome. With the usual top-notch packaging and presentation, this is another winner from Melba.