Bringing a little-known Saint-Saëns opera to the stage
Monday, January 26, 2015
People often ask me how I prepare for a role - how I learn it, how I create a character - and my answer invariably is that everything around me helps to inspire me. This can range from literature, visits to museums or the theatre; everything contributes in different ways. For me, the first thing is to develop an artistic hinterland, along with individuality and personality.
When my 'homework' is complete - text translated, background information read - I turn my attention to listening to selected recordings, to gain ideas from the great singers of the past. However, with this little-known (or completely forgotten) opera by Saint-Saëns, Les Barbares, the situation was very different. There was no precedent. When Palazzetto Bru Zane (the centre of French Romantic music set in a magically small palazzo in Venice) sent me the score, I had butterflies in my stomach with anticipation, realising that this CD, good or bad, would be the very first one made of this opera. In its small way it would be making history.
This project is so different from the standard fare, the regular repertoire expected of opera houses across the globe. Currently I’m in Lille for Idomeneo conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm and then Glyndebourne this summer for a new production by David McVicar Die Entführung aus dem Serail. While the great operas are always a pleasure to explore and re-explore, there’s something entirely refreshing and liberating about delving into unknown music.
To prepare for this unexplored role I thankfully had enormous support, not only from a French language coach but also the dedicated vocal team at the Royal Opera House who have guided me since I was a ROH Young Artist more than a decade ago. This was not my first recording project with the Palazzetto Bru Zane, we recorded another unknown opera by Felicien David entitled Herculanum, which is due to be released later this year, I hope.
You could ask whether it’s really worth the effort to learn and record a work which may never be performed again but I think it’s fascinating to journey into a forgotten past. We are lucky that there is a research centre like the Palazzetto to resurrect lost scores and create a legacy to fill the missing gaps of the puzzle.
Three decades after Saint-Saëns's famous Samson and Delilah, Les Barbares, set during the siege of Orange in Roman antiquity, was originally intended to be premiered in the same town’s Roman Theatre, but the first performances ended up being at the Paris Opera (Garnier) in October 1901. It received 27 performances over the next year but was rapidly eclipsed by Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande, premiered 6 months later, heralding in a new era.
Rather than concentrating on the bloodshed and slaughter, the plot focuses on the developing relationship between Floria, the Roman vestal virgin, and Marcomir, the leader of the invading Barbarians (the Roman’s term for foreigners, on this occasion from the north - my own Baltic region, so I am aptly cast for the role!). Rather than dwelling on the 'barbaric' nature of these marauding hordes, Marcomir is seen in a sympathetic light, full of affection for Floria. In the true opera tradition, Floria is ready to abandon her life to be with her forbidden love but all goes terribly wrong for Marcomir by the end of the opera.
The emotional climax comes during the Act II final duet between Floria and Marcomir. To me it shows how the unifying essence of most religions where at the heart of their doctrine is love and in particular love of one’s neighbour or 'other', however foreign, but eliminate this impetus, and it will become brutal radical force of destruction and radicalism, as we unfortunately see too often nowadays.
Read the Gramophone review of the debut recording of Saint-Saëns's Les Barbares here