Of Saint-Saëns’s 13 operas, only Samson et Dalila is a repertory staple. Palazzetto Bru Zane’s mission to promote rare French works has already yielded a recording of Les Barbares, which is now joined by the composer’s sixth opera, Proserpine, a tale of passion set in Renaissance Florence. Boiled down to its essentials, the plot concerns Sabatino’s love for two women: Angiola, the virginal sister of his friend, Renzo; and Proserpine, a courtesan. Proserpine rejects Sabatino, even though she has fallen in love with him, but she is jealous of Angiola and attempts to kill her. Sabatino wards off the blow, only for Proserpine to stab herself.
Saint-Saëns was very enthusiastic about his opera, travelling to Florence to soak up the atmosphere and later composing at great speed. Apart from Act 2, though, set in a convent, the score wasn’t well received. Camille Bellaigue complained that the drama didn’t really begin until Act 3 … which is where he felt the music began to slide downhill. Saint-Saëns’s score was dismissed as too Wagnerian, or too symphonic – possibly because the Organ Symphony had secured his reputation as an orchestral rather than operatic composer. Commentators had their petty digs, playing on the composer’s name: ‘Cinq sens, mais pas d’âme’ (Five senses, but no soul)!
This recording, made last autumn in Munich under the baton of Ulf Schirmer, reveals Saint-Saëns’s score to be compact, with each of its four acts having a distinct flavour. A pretty siciliana and a stately pavane help evoke the Florentine palazzo of Act 1, while a pretty, Gounod-like Ave Maria opens the convent scene. A stylish tarantella opens Act 3, where Proserpine is disguised as a gypsy, suggesting shades of Carmen (there’s even a fortune-telling scene as she tries to put the frighteners on Angiola). The brief Act 4 is pure melodrama, even when Auguste Vacquerie’s original ending to his play, from which Louis Gallet based his libretto, was watered down from two murders to a single suicide.
The cast is led by Véronique Gens in the title-role, her ever-expressive colouring of text superb, from scornful and haughty courtesan to desperate lover. The role was written for a ‘falcon’ (somewhere between a dramatic soprano and mezzo), taken at the premiere by Caroline Salla, who had starred in Le timbre d’argent (the next of Saint-Saëns’s operas to be resurrected by Palazzetto Bru Zane). Gens doesn’t have the heftiest soprano but does great justice to the role. She is well contrasted with Marie-Adeline Henry’s angelic soprano as Angiola. Frédéric Antoun is a stylish Sabatino, even if he hasn’t the most ringing top notes, while Jean Teitgen’s woolly bass doesn’t have a great deal to do as Renzo. Andrew Foster-Williams’s biting baritone makes for a splendid Squarocca, the rogue who acts as Proserpine’s spy. The Munich Radio Orchestra impress, particularly in the pulsating entr’acte depicting Proserpine’s flight back to Florence.
The discs are housed in a lavishly documented hardback book, which includes a superb analysis of the score by Gérard Condé as well as Saint-Saëns’s self-defence of the work, which he originally published as a pamphlet in 1902. The composer could never understand why his opera never achieved success with critics and the public: ‘I persist in finding Proserpine excellent. The future will show I was right.’ This new recording does his opera full justice.