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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Ascanio. Opera in Five Acts
Jean-François Lapointe (baritone) – Benvenuto Cellini
Joé Bertili (bass) – Pagolo
Bernard Richter (tenor) – Ascanio
Eve-Maud Hubeaux (contralto) – Scozzone
Jean Teitgen (bass) – François I
Karina Gauvin (soprano) – La Duchesse d’Étampes
Clemence Tilquin(soprano) – Colombe d’Estouville
Mohammed Haidar (bar) – Un Mendiant
Bastien Combe (soprano) – d’Estouville
Maxence Billiemaz (tenor) – D’Orbec
Raphaël Hardmeyer (bass) – Charles Quint
Olivia Doutney (soprano) – Une Ursuline
Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève
Chœur et Orchestre de la Haute École de Musique de Genève/Guillaume Tourniaire
rec. 2017, Grand Théâtre de Genève. Geneva
B RECORDS LBM013 [190 mins]

If you discount Saint-Saëns’ contribution to the completion of Guiraud's unfinished opera Frédégonde, he composed no fewer than twelve operas, although these days it is only Samson et Dalila than has enjoyed any success, and this is only the third I own. Some experts have argued that Ascanio is a much finer work, although, despite it being performed during his lifetime, the composer never actually heard the opera as he had composed it, as it was subject to heavy cuts in every production. Here we have the premiere recording of what is described as the 1888 autograph manuscript version - that is, as close to what Saint-Saëns envisaged as possible.

Described by the composer as a ‘lyric drama’, Ascanio is a grand opera in all but name. The action takies place in the Paris of 1539, revolving around the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and his stay at the court of Francis I. He has been commissioned by the king to create a sculpture of Jupiter and given the use of the mansion Grand Nesle in order to complete his task, much to the annoyance of its occupier, Robert d’Estouville. Cellini has to take the mansion by force and so further antagonising d’Estouville, whilst he is doing this he sees and becomes infatuated with Colombe d’Estouville, the daughter of Robert, who loves Ascanio, Cellini’s apprentice, who returns her love. There then follows much scheming involving Scozzone, the Duchesse d’Étampes’ half-sister, who is madly in love with Cellini and deeply jealous of Colombe who she sees as her rival in love. Cellini is at first maddened by the love between Ascanio and Colombe, but after he sees that it is is pure, he gives up any interest he has in the young woman and tries to secure her hand in marriage for his Ascanio. To this end he hides Colombe in a reliquary in the Ursuline convent to keep her safe from the machinations of the Duchesse d’Étampes, who finds out where she is hiding and decides to leave her to suffocate. Scozzone works to foil the Duchesses plan by warning Colombe and take her place in the reliquary. This is all happening whilst Cellini is petitioning the king for Ascanio to marry Colombe. Francis agrees only for the happy occasion to be spoiled when the reliquary is opened and the body of Scozzone is found.

There is a good reason why Saint-Saëns never heard this version as, despite the fact that this opera contains some wonderful music, there are times when some judicious editing would have been beneficial. Too often the action slows down and falters, giving the work the feeling that it is padded out and a little dull, and the flow of the opera is interrupted, this despite some really inspired writing elsewhere. There is some nice interplay between the characters, all of whom are sung really well - for example, Scene 10 at the end of Act 1, where Benvenuto’s staff and apprentices arrive at the mansion leading to some fine singing between Benvenuto, his students, Ascanio, local schoolchildren and onlookers. Act 2 is a little drawn out where, one after another ,Scozzone, Ascanio, Benvenuto and Colombe get starring roles, However there is also some nice duet work, especially between Scozzone and Benvenuto in Scenes 3 and 4. The ballet section, Entrée du Maître des Jeux, in Act 3, is a must in all Paris operas and is quite lovely; it begins with Saint-Saëns harking back to the golden age of French baroque music, then gradually becomes more contemporary and contains some wonderfully orchestrated music. Act 4 opens with a nice trio between The Duchess, Scozzone and Pagolo a disgruntled apprentice of Benvenuto, who relays his master’s plans to save Colombe and how to thwart it. This is followed by a heated discussion in which Scozzone tells Benvenuto of the meeting and that she knows of his plans. This leads into Scene 4 where Ascanio and Colombe attest their love for each other and then join Benvenuto who relinquishes any feelings he has for Colombe after seeing the love the two young people have for each other. Jean-Francois Lapointe is quite tender here in his portrayal coming over as a sort of father figure. The plotting of the Duchess comes to its fruition towards the end of the opera in a fine trio between The King, Benvenuto and the Duchess, after which the action grows to also include most of the protagonists and the choir, in a wonderfully rousing false ending, before the Duchess points to the reliquary asking “If Colombe is alive, then who is dead in there?”, at which Benvenuto opens it to reveal Scozzone dead. Lapointe wonderfully portrays Benvenuto’s grief, singing “Farewell, gaiety! Light! Farewell, youth! Farewell!” and the opera ends on a sad note.

All of the soloists in this production are in fine form: Jean-Francois Lapointe holds the work together and displays a wide array of emotion in his singing, while Bernard Richter and Clemence Tilquin are well matched as the star struck lovers. Indeed, even the smallest of solo parts are sung superbly well. The part played by the chorus and orchestra of students cannot be underestimated; theirs is a truly professional performance which adds weight and validity to the performance. It is hard to think of them as a student body, as they perform here better than some so-called professional bodies that I have heard recently. This performance goes a long way towards resurrecting this performing version of the opera, but I cannot get over the feeling that it is half an hour too long. Still, all the performers and producers should be applauded for bringing this wonderfully recorded performance to our attention. It is a must for fans of the music of Saint-Saëns and French Grand Opera, especially when one takes into account the presentation in the form of a 167-page hardback book, in French and English, which contains essays, a synopsis and a full text and translation.

Stuart Sillitoe

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