It seems safe to say the only ballet music by Camille Saint-Saëns one is likely to know is the ‘Bacchanale’ from Samson and Delilah, though Anna Pavlova’s interpretation of the ‘Dying Swan’ choreographed by Michel Fokine) proves so wildly popular with audiences that many still associate that lovely cello melody with the dance.
Annotator Hugh Macdonald reminds us, Saint-Saëns had a “distinctly spotty relationship with Paris’s opera houses”. Thus of the four works represented here, only two, Henry VIII (1883) and Ascanio (1890), had their premiere at the Opéra, whereas Etienne Marcel was staged in Lyon in 1879 and Les Barbares was intended to be performed outdoors in the Roman amphitheatre at Orange (also the setting of the opera) thought no further stagings are cited in the notes after the original attempts fell through. But any production at the Opéra had to include a ballet – this was decreed by the infamous Jockey Club, many of whom had mistresses in the corps de ballet – and Saint-Saëns apparently thought it beneficial to add a substantial string of dances to the Lyon production of Etienne Marcel as well. Given the considerable continued interest in Saint-Saëns’s music, it seems incredible that this is apparently the only recording to explore his ballet music in some detail.
Ascanio is apprentice to the great silversmith Benvenuto Cellini and became the title when Saint-Saëns became determined to avoid confusion with Berlioz’s opera. But it’s based on the same play by Paul Meurice (in turn derived from the historical novel by Dumas père). The hopelessly complicated tale of romantic intrigue begins when Cellini and Ascanio realise they both love the same girl, Colombe, whose father is Provost of Paris. In turn each gentleman is desired by another woman, Ascanio by the Duchess and Cellini by Scozzone, who heroically foils the Duchess’s plot to murder poor Colombe and ends up suffocated inside a reliquary Cellini has cast for a local convent. This story line plays out over five acts (!) and finds Cellini at the court of François I in Fontainebleau, reason enough for Saint-Saëns to pause in the third act for half a ballet in the baroque manner. Figures familiar from Greek mythology take the stage, beginning with Venus, Juno, and Pallas Athene, whose elegant movements clearly evoke Rameau. A distant horn sounds and Diana enters accompanied by the Dryads and Naiads; but their poise and grace are lost on Bacchus, whose rambunctious gambols are heralded by alternating strokes on a pair of triangles (evoking Josef Strauss’s Feuerfest Polka. Phoebus Apollo’s melody will be familiar from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.) He is soon followed onstage by Cupid and Psyche. The dashing and jaunty ensemble dance farther in...could pass for an out-take from The Sleeping Beauty. The ‘Apotheosis’ closes out the entertainment in grand style...This new recording is complete.
Etienne Marcel was de facto leader of the merchants of Paris in the uneasy times that followed hard on the Hundred Years War and ten years later the ravages of the Black Death. Paris was then influential in both academic and mercantile circles, and Marcel was highly active in the Estates General convened by the Dauphin, who would later be crowned Charles V. But the reforms demanded by Marcel fell on deaf ears, and in 1358 he led a bootless revolt that was cut down by the palace guards. A grand equestrian statue of Marcel by Antonin Idrac now stands next to the Hotel de Ville, whose rebuilding after it was destroyed by the Commune in 1871 inspired Saint-Saëns to write an opera. This ballet is a more compact and considerably more colourful display than its counterpart in Ascanio, beginning with a noisy entry by students and bawds, a brash and impudent exercise that might suggest a burlesque of the ‘Cortege’ from Debussy’s Petite Suite, written nine years later. The ‘Musette Guerriere’ handily belies its “warlike” title, and in the solo violin runs parallel to the string line in the graceful ‘Pavane’. A cheerful ‘Valse’ seems quite oblivious of the stage action and sets up a hearty gypsy dance (‘Entrée des Bohemiens et Bohemiennes’) before the full company gathers onstage for the finale – at times suggesting the familiar ‘Dance of the Hours’ – spurred on by an exhilarating virtuoso turn by the lead trumpeter not unlike the ‘Fête Foraine’ from Lalo’s Namouna. I was happy to set aside my old monaural dub of Pierre-Michel Le Conte from the ORTF in favour of this sparkling new recording.
Les Barbares, characterized by Macdonald as “a bloodthirsty tale of conquest, sacrifice, and revenge”, is set in 105 BC and tells of the relentless struggle between the Gauls and the conquering Germans (the “barbarians” of the title), which Saint-Saëns saw as an allegory for the tension between France and Germany following the Franco-Prussian War. In the last act the Germans spare the astonished Gauls after the Vestal Virgin Floria cats off her vows and submits to the Barbarian chief, which naturally calls for a celebration, in this case limited to an ‘Air de Ballet’ in a lively polonaise rhythm followed by an even faster ‘Farandole’ with skirling clarinet and rataplan trumpet that sounds like D’Indy. These two dances are preceded here by a fairly substantial and lugubrious Prologue and the essentially expository Prelude to Act III where the strings almost take on the aspect of human speech.
...this is a splendid collection of sorely neglected melody from Saint-Saëns’s pen, faultlessly set forth by the Australian players and beautifully recorded. Like Saint-Saëns‘s Hélene and Nuit Persane, wholeheartedly welcomed by Mr Parsons (Jan/Feb 2009), this new release marks yet another triumph for conductor Tourniaire, Orchestra Victoria, and the Melba Foundation.