SAINT-SAËNS Ascanio (Tourniaire)
Like so many works written for the Paris Opéra, where it was first performed in 1890, Ascanio never reached the stage in the form its composer intended. Shortly after completing the score in 1888, Saint-Saëns suffered a severe breakdown following the death of his mother, and eventually entrusted preparations for the premiere to his librettist Louis Gallet and the composer Ernest Guiraud. Exactly who decided on changes is unclear; but by the time Saint-Saëns heard the work late in its opening run, the score had been cut to bits, with two crucial scenes drastically telescoped into one. This effective abridgement formed the basis of its subsequent revivals and the opera was only heard complete last November, when Guillaume Tourniaire used Saint-Saëns’s autograph score for the series of concert performances in Geneva that form the basis of this outstanding recording.
Gallet’s source was Paul Meurice’s 1852 play Benvenuto Cellini. Saint-Saëns adopted the title Ascanio in deference to Berlioz, though Cellini is very much the central character, and the opera, set during his 1540 Paris sojourn as goldsmith to François I, deals with his attempts to rescue Ascanio, his favourite pupil, from the clutches of François’s mistress, the Duchesse d’Étampes, a lethal femme fatale who takes lovers behind the king’s back then murders them to forestall accusations of infidelity. Ascanio and Cellini, however, are also rivals for the affections of the virginal if far from naive Colombe d’Estourville, infuriating not only the Duchesse but also Cellini’s possessive model Scozzone, who eventually becomes the tragic casualty of the Duchesse’s scheming.
The score is magnificent, if uneven. The dramaturgy wobbles in places, notably in Act 2, where Saint-Saëns’s need to give four of his protagonists their principal arias in succession holds up the action. The big public scenes are comparable in their grandeur to the finale of the Organ Symphony and every bit as thrilling. Colombe and Ascanio’s duets are notably beautiful, and there’s a marvellous scene in Act 3 when François and the Emperor Charles V, visiting Paris en route to Flanders, vie with each other to be Cellini’s principal patron. Deeming it Wagnerian, Saint-Saëns’s contemporaries compared it with Meistersinger, not entirely without reason. Debussy, meanwhile, must have been familiar with it: the similarities between Colombe’s unaccompanied ‘Mon coeur est sous la pierre’ and Mélisande’s ‘Mes longs cheveux descendent’ are too close to be coincidental.
The recording, meanwhile, is tremendous in the way it captures the excitement felt by singers, players and audience in the rediscovery of a significant work by a composer whose output is still in a process of re-evaluation. Tourniaire conducts with terrific élan and commitment, while his orchestra, a formidable student ensemble from Geneva’s Haute École de Musique, play as if their lives depend on it. The choral singing is spine-tinglingly good, the soloists consistently superb. Jean-François Lapointe makes a tireless Cellini, charismatic, witty and astute, yet tellingly hampered by failures of emotional understanding when confronted with Ève Maud Hubeaux’s volatile yet adoring Scozzone. Bernard Richter’s Ascanio and Clémence Tilquin’s Colombe sound tender and sexy together. Karina Gauvin’s Duchesse dispenses scorn and seduction in equal measure, showering Lapointe and Richter with invective and twisting Jean Teitgen’s sensualist François round her little finger with caressingly beautiful phrases. I admit to being swept away by the whole thing. It’s a major achievement and highly recommended.