SAINT-SAËNS Les Barbares
Of Saint-Saëns’s 12 operas, only the second, Samson et Dalila, is well known. Now, thanks to the enterprise of the Fondation Bru and its ‘Centre de musique romantique française’, comes the opportunity to investigate opera number 9. Les barbares was commissioned by the City of Orange for performance in the town’s Roman theatre, where the action of the opera takes place. That the story is set in the first century BC, well before the theatre was built, doesn’t seem to have troubled anybody much. In the end, logistical problems meant that the premiere was given at the Paris Opéra, in October 1901; the illustrations in the handsome book that encloses the discs include a photograph of the two oxen that pulled the chariots.
The librettists were Victorien Sardou and Pierre-Barthélémy Gheussi. Les barbares is in a line of descent from Norma, The Pearl Fishers and Lakmé, though it lacks the exotic setting of the last two. The Teuton barbarians have invaded Roman Gaul. During the battle outside the theatre, Livie’s husband is killed; she vows to avenge him. Her sister Floria is the chief vestal virgin. Marcomir, leader of the barbarians, is so smitten with Floria that he offers to spare the Romans if she will love him. After a brief resistance, Floria agrees. She renounces her priesthood and they prepare to leave; but Livie, discovering that it was Marcomir who killed her husband, promptly takes her revenge by stabbing him to death.
The opera gets off to a slow start, a long orchestral introduction enclosing a sung narration. This is wholly redundant, but it is so vividly declaimed by Teitgen that you can’t help but pay attention. And declamation is perhaps the watchword of the whole work. Saint-Saëns is as punctilious in his word-setting as Massenet; the trouble is, on the evidence here, that he lacked Massenet’s theatrical instinct. There are several fine passages, though, especially the duet for Marcomir and Floria – sung with delicacy by Montvidas and Hunold – and the funeral procession for Livie’s husband. Campellone conducts splendidly and the sound is admirable.