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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)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2017, Studio de la Philharmonie de Paris
BRU ZANE BZ1041 [76:46 + 70:43]

Palazzetto Bru Zane’s Opéra français CD-book series has now reached volume 25: Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera Le timbre d'argent (The Silver Bell). It is a welcome new release, the first recording of a recently resurrected work. It inaugurates a series of events that Bru Zane has planned to celebrate the centenary of Saint-Saëns’s death that falls in 2021.

The Bru Zane label’s raison d'être is its continuing exploration of French musical heritage by rediscovering and promoting high-quality works worthy of revival. This is undoubtedly proving an invaluable project to opera lovers. Saint-Saëns’s opera output has fared well in this series: it has already rescued from obscurity Les Barbares (vol. 8) and Proserpine (vol. 15).

Parisian born and bred, Saint-Saëns wrote thirteen operas but only Samson et Dalila is reasonably often staged today. The first to be written was actually Le Timbre d'argent, and no lesser figures than Bizet and Massenet expressed admiration for the work. The path of the opera – from its original creation as an opéra comique to its eventual premiere, and on to this first-ever recording – has been long and complex. Sadly, this is all too common in the history of opera, and remains true to this day.

After over a hundred years of obscurity, it was in June 2017 that Le Timbre d'argent received its first modern-day stage revival with a run of six performances for Opéra Comique at Salle Favart, Paris. The production was directed by Guillaume Vincent and his creative team: James Brandily (sets), Fanny Brouste (costumes) and Kelig Le Bars (lighting). At the time of that staging, the same cast of soloists, chorus Accentus and orchestra Les Siècles, all directed by François-Xavier Roth, gathered at Philharmonie de Paris to set down this world-premiere recording.

The libretto by the renowned partnership of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré had been offered to other composers, including Gounod. It was Saint-Saëns who accepted the commission from the Théâtre Lyrique. He wrote the work swiftly in 1864. (Incidentally, the librettos for Gounod’s Faust and Offenbach’s Les contes d'Hoffmann are also the creations of Barbier and Carré. Not surprisingly, similarities to those operas can be found in Le timbre d'argent.) Saint-Saëns requested the librettists to make some alterations; the libretto had originally been an 1852 play that lay unperformed. In accordance with the custom of the opéra comique, the libretto of Le Timbre d'argent has spoken dialogue placed amongst its sung lines.

In 1868, the opera reached the rehearsal stage at Théâtre Lyrique, only for its production to be shelved. Although completed in 1864, it would have to wait twelve years for its first performance. A number of factors added to the long delay, particularly money problems, including bankruptcy at opera companies and firm plans terminated by declaration of war. In those intervening years, Saint-Saëns made various revisions. Notably, he worked Le Timbre d'argent into a grand opera, replacing all spoken dialogue with sung recitative that was mandatory for performance at Paris Opéra, the foremost opera and ballet company in France. Despite all Saint-Saëns’s efforts in newly orchestrating the recitative for the Paris Opéra, the composer wrote that he expected something untoward to occur. He was proved right when the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 interceded together with political unrest, and the staging did not happen.

Eventually in 1877 in Paris Le Timbre d'argent, now in a fourth version, received its premiere. It was given by Albert Vizentini’s company Opéra-National-Lyrique at Théâtre de la Gaîté, on rue Papin, then briefly known as Théâtre National Lyrique. For the belated premiere, the score pronounces a drame lyrique, and the libretto an opéra fantastique. Alterations included arranging the material from four acts with prologue and epilogue into just four acts. Originally intended to be played after the prologue, the overture moved to the traditional position at the start of the opera. Also, a proportion of the original spoken dialogue is altered to sung recitative. Vizentini’s increasingly limited budget was to blame for a standard of performance far from ideal. After a run of eighteen performances, finances dwindled away, forcing the opera to close. With other revisions, there were a number of revivals: in Brussels in 1879, in several German cities in 1904/1905 with a German vocal score, and in Monte Carlo in 1907.

Performed on this recording is the grand opera version complete with sung recitatives, which Saint-Saëns had prepared for its acclaimed 1914 revival at Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. In this version there are four acts; acts two and four are divided into tableaux. In the fifty years that elapsed between its composition in 1864 and this 1914 ‘final’ version of the score, there have been ten revisions. Enduring such a litany of setbacks, Saint-Saëns could be forgiven in thinking that the opera was jinxed. He was once reported to have said “It’s not an opera anymore, it’s a nightmare”, yet despite misgivings he clearly kept some belief in the opera and never discarded it.

The curious plot of Le Timbre d’argent makes it at turns unsettling and heartening. Saint-Saëns wrote that the score “does not pretend to be anything other than a light work, yet this lightness conceals some depths…” Its leading female character is not a singer but actually the ballerina Fiametta (sometimes spelt as Fiammetta in the book) who is mute. Fiametta is the personification on this mortal earth of enchantress Circé, a goddess from Greek Mythology. I am reminded of the dance role for Fenella, the mute heroine from Auber’s influential opera La muette de Portici (1828).

Here is my much-abridged synopsis of Le Timbre d’argent, set in eighteenth-century Vienna. On Christmas Eve, whilst in a delirium, struggling artist Conrad, impoverished and lonely, has developed a dangerous gold fever. He has painted a picture of goddess Circé embodied on earth by ballerina Fiametta. In crisis, unable to endure any more torment, Conrad falls victim to Spiridion, a devilish physician. Rather in the manner of a ‘Faustian pact’, Conrad is given a silver bell. When it is rung, showers of gold will make him wealthy but result in the death of an innocent person. The key point is Conrad’s inability to distinguish between dreams and reality, and he is driven to commit dreadful deeds.

There are five major roles in Le Timbre d’argent. On this recording, the well-chosen soloists all achieve favourable results. The principals, the chorus, the orchestra and the conductor have surely benefited from attending rehearsals and the series of six staged performances of Le Timbre d’argent that they all gave for the Opéra Comique at Salle Favart, Paris. That run, presented in a contemporary staging by director Guillaume Vincent, reportedly had a mixed reception, but I still regret not being there for the occasion.
A positive influence throughout, Yu Shao gives an excellent performance as Bénédict. A stand-out is his aria from act one Demande à l'oiseau qui s'éveille (Ask the bird that awakens). The Chinese tenor convinces as Bénédict comparing his great joy as superior to the happiness he gains from nature. He clearly enjoys this melodious aria. His voice is most attractive, often tender, and he ably demonstrates glorious slides to his top register. An elegant young singer, Yu has plenty of time and talent to remedy a few rough edges.

French-Canadian soprano Hélène Guilmette sings the role of her namesake Hélène, a character with little exclusive material. Successfully validating Hélène’s participation in the opera is her act two romance - Le bonheur est chose légère, passagère (Happiness is light, a passing thing) accompanied by Bénédict’s violin. Bright, smooth and tuneful, Guilmette effectively delivers the melody and words concerning the fragility of love, together with some swiftly achieved ornamentation. On the other hand, Guilmette’s soprano voice thins slightly when under pressure in her high range.

Dr. Spiridion, a physician, devilish in the manner of Méphistophélès from the Faust legend, is a role that gives Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis several opportunities to shine, and shine he does. Of his contributions, my favourite is the joyous Chanson Napolitaine - Qui je suis? (who am I?) from act two. There is much enjoyment here, as Spiridion, a troubadour with guitar, identifying as a Caméléon, declares he will sing any love song requested. A vastly experienced singer of French works, Christoyannis renders this tuneful, major set-piece with pleasing musicality and characterisation. Although his top register is not his strongest asset, Christoyannis displays a clear, hearty delivery. Especially commendable is the baritone’s trademark warm tone and splendid phrasing. In part of the finale of act three, Spiridion leads the hearty chorus with true zeal in Dans le bruit et dans l’ivresse (Amid noise and drunkenness), a short and boisterous drinking song.

Belgian soprano Jodie Devos excels as Hélène’s sister Rosa, a role without set-piece solos. Devos stands out for me especially in Rosa’s glorious act three duet with fiancé Bénédict - L'humble papillon de nuit (The humble moth) accompanied by chorus. Rosa’s contribution begins with the words L'étoile, du firmament (The star, from the firmament) expressing how one only has to love to find heaven. Conspicuously, highly talented and assured Devos certainly displays her lovely smooth and expressive tone, able to quickly soar to her high notes.

The role of Conrad the impoverished, unsuccessful painter is taken by Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas. This is a highly acceptable performance by Montvidas, whose voice can at times come across as a touch bland. There is a striking aria - Dans le silence et I'ombre (In silence and in shadow) from act one. Here the tenor communicates Conrad’s torment convincingly with the words Ah! Je te maudis, je te déteste (Ah! I curse you, I hate you). It is with persuasive passion that Montvidas achieves his high notes, causing only minimal overstrain. Conrad is especially prominent in act three. What stands out is Conrad’s aria - Quel trouble s'empare (What agitation takes hold). With dancer Fiametta in his arms, Conrad expresses his love for her, wanting to run away together as he has rich treasure buried nearby. This is Montvidas heard at his most effective, any slight evenness trumped by singing of sincerity and considerable emotion without loss of control.

Towards the end of act one and repeated in a more generous fashion at the start of act four is the uproarious and rather crazy party scène Carnaval! Carnaval! With Conrad and the characterful chorus excelling, this is a genuinely uplifting scène. A quick change of mood follows on in act four with Hélène and Conrad’s duet L’oiseau perdu dans I’espace (The bird lost in space). The soprano is indoors by her window and the tenor below outside, although unable to be with each other. There is no shortage of tenderness to their singing. There are several other highlights that deserve to be singled out. In act one, there is an entertaining ‘Chorus of Nymphs’, and in act two the ‘Dance of the Bee’ complete with buzzing effects from violas. This is a beautifully played, if rather short, ballet episode for dancer Fiametta who is being attacked by a bee only to fall into Spiridion’s arms, much to Conrad’s chagrin. In addition, the opera’s finale - À vous mon âme! (Yours is my soul) is uplifting, complete with a particularly stirring organ part to conclude.

Assuredly directed by chorus master Christophe Grapperon, French chamber chorus Accentus is in pleasing form. In this demanding score, Accentus mixes character with unified contributions admirably: in short, a credit to all concerned.

François-Xavier Roth founded the orchestra Les Siècles in 2003. They play here on French instruments from the period at the end of nineteenth century. For example, the oboe soloist plays an 1894 instrument by Parisian woodwind maker Buffet-Crampon. Adopting speeds that never drag, Roth adroitly directs Les Siècles who responds with a crisp and alert playing. This spirited performance has real merit and shakes off the thick dust, arousing the score back to vibrant life.

Impressive sound quality with no shortage of atmosphere has been achieved at Studio de la Philharmonie de Paris. The engineering team provide clarity and satisfying balance between vocal soloists, chorus and period-instrument orchestra. As anticipated, the presentation of this CD-book maintains the Bru Zane label’s highest standards. The hardback book, a bilingual edition in French and English, includes the full libretto, synopsis and five invaluable essays, one of which consists of two articles by Saint-Saëns himself.

Saint-Saëns described Le Timbre d’argent as containing ‘a bit of everything… ranging from symphony to operetta by way of a lyric drama and ballet’ and occasional shades of musical theatre. As if doomed to failure, the opera has certainly had more than its fair share of trials and tribulations. Running such a convoluted course, Le Timbre d’argent with all its transformations has certainly been worth all the effort to arrive at its 2017 revival. Far more than a mere historical novelty, this captivating recording shows that Bru Zane has unearthed a valuable opera to cherish.

Fingers crossed for a filmed staging of Le Timbre d’argent to appear on DVD/Blu-ray. Where will Bru Zane go next with its exceptional Opéra français series? Piquing my curiosity is Halévy’s five act grand opera Charles VI (1843), a considerable project which, coronavirus pandemic challenges aside, certainly fits the criteria for neglected French operas.

Michael Cookson

Opéra français, volume 25 of Bru Zane’s CD-book series, two CDs and a 163-page book, bilingual edition, English and French. (This is one of a numbered limited edition of 4,000.)

1. Agnès Terrier & Alexandre Dratwicki – ‘When the hour of rediscovery strikes’
2. Hugh Macdonald – ‘Le Timbre d'argent and its Transformations’
3. Marie-Gabrielle Soret – ‘The genesis of Le Timbre d'argent
4. Gérard Condé – ‘Much more than a trial run’
5. Camille Saint-Saëns – A word from the composer
a. ‘The Story of an opéra comique’ (May 1911)
b. ‘Le Timbre d'argent’ (January 1914)

Synopsis, libretto, listing of soloists, chorus and orchestra members, detailed tracklist

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