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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Timbre d’argent, Drame lyrique en quatre actes (1865, rev. 1914)
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré
Hélène Guilmette, soprano (Hélène)
Jodie Devos, soprano (Rosa, her sister)
Edgaras Montvidas, tenor (Conrad, an artist, Hélène’s suitor)
Yu Shao, tenor (Bénédict, Conrad’s friend, engaged to Rosa)
Tassis Christoyannis, baritone (Dr. Spiridion, a physician)
Jean-Yves Ravoux, tenor (Patrick)
Matthieu Chapuis, tenor (Frantz / Beggar)
Accentus, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2017, Studio de la Philharmonie de Paris
BRU ZANE BZ1041 [76:46 + 70:43]

For many a Saint-Saëns fan, myself included, the label Bru Zane are heroes. This is their third opera presentation after Les Barbares and Proserpine, and, what is more, no sign of Samson! We are especially thankful for their recording of this opera. Le Timbre d’argent, which we are told was the composer’s favourite, is receiving its premiere recording. In his first outing as an opera composer, Saint-Saëns has been very unlucky with this work. It has an arduous history, with tales of revisions, cancelations, wars and bankruptcies halting performances of the opera. All of that is highlighted in the first chapter of the accompanying hardback book.

The first of Saint-Saëns’s thirteen operas, Le Timbre d’argent was composed in 1865. It opens with a wonderfully bright overture, the longest he ever composed. The work continues in the typically French fashion of the day, leading to a most enjoyable and interesting work. It definitely did not deserve the neglect it has suffered. Stephen Studd in his Critical Biography of Saint-Saëns discussed the “extraordinary sequence of twists and turns in the history of Le Timbre d’Argent”. The final 1914 revision was resurrected and staged in 2017, and that eventually led to this recording, one of the finest in Bru Zane’s catalogue.

The eminent Jules Barbier and Michel Carré wrote the libretto. They were also the authors of the librettos of Gounod’s Faust and Offenbach’s Les contes d'Hoffmann, with elements of both present in this work. It revolves around the artist Conrad and his infatuation with a speechless ballet dancer, Fiametta. He is betrothed to Hélène, but he paints Fiametta as the embodiment of the goddess and enchantress Circé. Conrad seeks help from his friends and especially his doctor Spiridion. He blames the doctor for the bad luck he suffers from. At this point, Conrad faints. He dreams of Circé, and of meeting Spiridion who presents him with a silver bell. The bell, when rung, will shower him with riches at the terrible price of the death of a loved one. He wakes up to find a bell beside him. He rings, and at once is showered with gold. At the same time, Hélène’s father collapses and dies.

In Act II, Conrad lavishes Fiametta with all kinds of gifts that his newfound wealth allows. However, she has a new suitor, a mysterious Marquis who is actually Spiridion in disguise. Marquis wins the day. Conrad, angry at his loss, spoils the feast the Marquis has set for Fiametta. He releases his rage whilst resisting the use of the bell again.

Act III opens in the cottage of Hélène and her sister Rosa, who is preparing for her forthcoming marriage to Conrad’s friend Bénédict. In the garden, Conrad has buried the bell, but Fiametta and Spiridion appear dressed as gypsies. They taunt Conrad, inviting themselves to the wedding and promising to dance for the guests. Conrad flies into a rage and strikes the bell, and his friend Bénédict, the groom, dies.

Act IV sees Conrad at the lake into which he has thrown the bell. Spiridion appears and conjures up a ballet in which Fiametta, in the guise of Circé, dances a magnificent dance; that drives Conrad mad with desire. Bénédict appears before Conrad as a ghost and hands him the bell from the depths of the lake. Instead of ringing it, Conrad finds the strength to destroy it. He awakes in his studio to find it was all a dream. He goes to Hélène to set a date for their wedding, settling happily for his true destiny.

The work does not deserve the neglect it has garnered. There is some wonderful music in the score, whilst the passionate libretto flows, telling the story well. This is helped by excellent performances by all involved. Edgaras Montvidas, with his French-sounding tenor, gives a wonderful performance as the main protagonist Conrad. Right from his first entry in Act I, Montvidas shows Conrad’s personality. The portrayal is full of emotion and character. Non, non! que parles-tu d’unir à ma détresse perfectly shows the burgeoning infatuation with Fiametta, whilst the realisation of Conrad’s greed is evident at the end of Act III. His despair at the death of Bénédict is carried over to the end of the opera with the realisation that he had been dreaming. There is a sense of relief in Votre père! Vivant! ô réveil! when Conrad realises Hélène’s father is alive. Soprano Hélène Guilmette as Hélène is well matched with Montvidas; her Act II Le bonheur est chose légère is sung beautifully.

Jodie Devos as Rosa and Yu Shao as Bénédict have some nice parts to sing, and they acquit themselves admirably. But it is the ever-trustworthy Tassis Christoyannis as the devious Dr. Spiridion, who for me steals the show. I have been a fan of his since I first heard his voice. The performance here shows mastery of the genre. The way he changes from friendly reassurance to sinister malevolence is quite superb. His performance, however, also pinpoints, for me at least, this work’s major flaw in characterisation and plot writing. Surely Fiametta needs a voice! A two-sided trio does not work as well as a proper trio. Even so, the performance is exciting and engaging. No self-respecting Saint-Saëns fan will want to be without this opera. Kudos to Accentus and Les Siècles who, under the excellent direction of François-Xavier Roth, help the soloists make this a performance to remember.

As with all the Bru Zane productions, there is fantastic presentation. Two discs are tucked into a luxury hardback book. We get essays and historical information, a synopsis and full libretto in both French and English. These texts give details of the evolution of the work which help understand it. There also are great insight into the composer’s mind when he was composing and editing the opera. If only all booklets were as informative. All this adds up to an most desirable production, well worth the investment. I think it may be the best of the Bru Zane releases I know.

Stuart Sillitoe
Previous review: Michael Cookson

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