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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
La Princesse jaune, opéra-comique in one act (1872), libretto by Louis Gallet [52:46]
Mélodies persanes, cycle of six mélodies with orchestra, Op 26 (1870) [27:02]
Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse/Leo Hussain
rec. 11-13 February 2021, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France
BRU ZANE BZ1045 [79:58]

Saint-Saëns wrote in 1912: “Japan was fashionable, people spoke of nothing but Japan, it was all the rage. So, we set sail for Japan and La Princesse jaune was born.” What can better mark the centenary of the composer’s death than a recording of his opéra-comique La Princesse jaune (The Yellow Princess) some 150 years after its premiere? The opera is short, so we also get the captivating Mélodies persanes cycle of six mélodies.

Bru Zane’s Opéra français CD-book series has thus reached volume 29. The recordings here are just some of the events that Bru Zane has devised to honour the Saint-Saëns centennial. His neglected operas have fared well: Les Barbares (vol. 8), Proserpine (vol. 15) and Le timbre d'argent (vol. 25, review).

Europe, and France specifically, responded enthusiastically to oriental and exotic topics in the arts. An unidentified critic described the Paris Opéra as an ‘open bazaar’ full of the wonders of the orient. There are many examples of French Romantic opera with exotic settings and oriental themes, notably Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (premiered 1863), Delibes’s Lakmé (1883) and Massenet’s Thaïs (1894). Saint-Saëns, extremely well travelled, visited nearly thirty countries on five continents; he only never made it to Oceania and Antarctica. Fascinated by the Orient, he seems to have found his spiritual home in North Africa. Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt especially fired his imagination. Just consider his opera Samson et Dalila, his Suite algérienne, Piano Concerto No 5Egyptian’, Orient et occident, Caprice arabe and Fantasie for piano and orchestra ‘Africa’.

With La Princesse jaune, Saint-Saëns, his librettist Gallet and the co-directors of the Opéra-Comique, who commissioned the opera, were attempting to take advantage of the Parisian vogue for the Orient, in particular Japan and its art and culture (the craze was known as japonisme). Gallet made a rather unlikely choice: he placed the Japanese-themed story in a Dutch town, in a room converted to an artists’ studio. There are just two characters. An overture is followed by arias and duets, all interspersed with spoken dialogue. Spoken word may be off-putting but the little there is – a few minutes all in all – integrates seamlessly with the sung text.

The June 1872 premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris saw Saint-Saëns’s third opera but the first to be presented to the public. A short work, La Princesse jaune was part of a double bill with another opéra-comique, Ferdinand Poise’s Bonsoir voisin! A box office and critical failure, it was withdrawn after just five performances; Saint-Saëns’s wrote how “this innocent little work was greeted with the most ferocious hostility”. Fauré, however, proclaimed La Princesse jaune “brilliant and joyous”, and Saint-Saëns himself later described it as “one of the best things I have ever done in the theatre”. He revised it for a 1906 revival, and that version is usually chosen, but this is a recording of the original version.

The story concerns Kornélis, a Dutch doctor fascinated with Japanese culture. His young cousin Léna is in love with him. Under the effects of a hallucinogenic drug, the fixated Kornélis falls in love with the subject of a portrait, a Japanese princess named Ming. His perception of reality is profoundly distorted. He believes Léna is Ming inhabiting a fairy-tale land. The potion wears off and Kornélis returns to reality. He yields to the charms of the despairing Léna and takes her in his arms.

Kornélis is sung by lyric tenor Mathias Vidal, who specialises in French and Italian roles. He clearly relishes this repertoire, and is well suited to Kornélis’s arias. He puts his sonorous tone to splendid use, with fine diction, projection and vitality. In the air J’aime, dans son lointain mystère (I love, in its different mystery) with its gently rocking accompaniment, Vidal increases the atmospheric mood as he extols to Léna the glories of Japan, a paradise he dreams of. Another highlight is the solo described as Kornélis’s vision: he drinks the potion and gazes at the portrait of Ming, imploring the image to come to life. At this key moment, Vidal provides all the necessary tenderness and a heartfelt sincerity.

Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij is a convincing Léna. I have encountered her previously in mainly French Baroque opera including Lemoyne’s Phèdre on Bru Zane (review). She sings with plenty of character the air Outsou Sémisi Kamini when Léna finds a poem that Kornélis wrote to Ming. In her high range, Wanroij’s tone hardens slightly; I generally prefer a warmer soprano tone. In the second air Je faisais un rêve insensé (I was dreaming a foolish dream), there is suitable emotion and a pleasing honesty as Léna realises that Kornélis has fallen in love with a portrait.

Another highlight is the delightful and affecting duet Ah! Quel nuage d’or s’ouvre (Ah! what a golden cloud). Drugged, Kornélis believes that Léna is Ming who has come to life, and expresses his love. An unnamed women’s vocal ensemble adds to the mood: they sing a short passage in Japanese, just once.

The narrator is the soprano, and a French native speaker, Anaïs Constans. (Spoken word has been omitted in the Chandos recording of La Princesse jaune from 1996 at Lugano with soloists Carlo Allemano and Maria Costanza Nocentini and the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana under Francis Travis – review.)

A yearning for oriental and exotic vistas continues in Saint-Saëns’s six Mélodies persanes (Persian Melodies). Late 19th-century Parnassian poet Armand Renaud was attracted to Persian and Japanese verse. His collection of poems Les Nuits persanes (Persian Nights) was published in 1870. It is easy to imagine how Renaud’s verse would have inspired Saint-Saëns; that same year he set six of the poems for voice and piano. In 1891 he orchestrated Mélodies persanes for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. He also took the opportunity to ‘reorganise’ them into a Symphonic Ode or Cantata with the title Nuits persane by connecting the orchestral songs with “orchestral preludes and transitions and added a spoken narration with passages of melodrama”.

Bru Zane presents a new version, which strips away the choral contribution but adds an orchestral prelude and interlude taken from Nuits persane. It has been decided here to allocate a different soloist to each mélodie. I definitely respond to the exotic tone-pictures in this new guise. I savour Renaud’s imaginative if flowery text and the composer’s glorious setting. A stand-out: La Brise (The Breeze) sung by Philippe Estèphe in a hearty, rich-toned baritone; one relishes the exotic rhythms as the girl gives the sultan a special dance watched by the eunuch. Another highlight: the exquisitely beautiful Au cimetière (In the graveyard) sung by Anaïs Constans; she demonstrates her accomplished high register and produces a meaningful expression as the protagonist sitting at the warrior’s grave.

Leo Hussain conducts the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse. They play impressively, with a fine balance between accuracy and expression. There also are a number of outstanding solo contributions. As shown on a promo video clip, the studio sessions at the Halle aux Grains in Toulouse were made under Covid-19 protocols: face masks when appropriate, social distancing and so on. No problems whatsoever with the satisfying recorded studio sound. As one has come to expect from the Bru Zane Opéra français series, the presentation of this CD-book maintains the label’s highest standards. The hardback book in French and English contains the full opera libretto, synopsis and four valuable essays, plus the texts of the Mélodies persanes.
I had been unsure of Louis Gallet’s libretto with just two characters. Yet La Princesse jaune has far exceeded my expectations. In a performance as notable as this, Saint-Saëns’s short opéra-comique is highly recommended, and the glorious Mélodies persanes are a bonus.

Michael Cookson

Opéra français, volume 29 of Bru Zane’s CD-book series (one of a numbered limited edition of 4000): a CD and a 103-page bilingual book.

La Princesse jaune, opéra-comique in one act (1872)
1. Ouverture
2. Dialogue: Kornélis! Kornélis! Entrerai-je? (Léna)
3. Air: Outsou Sémisi Kamini (Léna)
4. Dialogue: Bonjour cousin!... (Léna, Kornélis)
5. Air: J’aime, dans son lointain mystère (Kornélis)
6. Dialogue: Ah! C’est trop! (Léna)
7. Air: Je faisais un rêve insensé (Léna)
8. Dialogue: C’est peut-être la mort! (Kornélis)
9. Vision: Vision dont mon âme éprise (Kornélis)
10. Dialogue: Eh bien! Mais il est là! (Léna)
11. Duo: Ah! Quel nuage d’or s’ouvre devant mes yeux! (Léna, Kornélis & vocal ensemble)
12. Chanson: Sur l’eau claire et sans ride (Kornélis)
13. Duo (suite): Je ne comprends rien à ta poésie!... (Léna, Kornélis)
14. Mélodrame: Il repose et sa fièvre est calmée! (Léna, Kornélis)
15. Duo: Ce doux mot qu’ignorant de moi-même (Léna, Kornélis)
Mathias Vidal (tenor) – Kornélis, young Dutchman
Judith van Wanroij (soprano) – Léna, a young Dutchwoman, his cousin
Anaïs Constans (soprano) – Une voix (A voice)
Set in Holland, in a room converted into a studio.

Mélodies persanes (Persian melodies), cycle of 6 mélodies with orchestra, Op 26 (1870)
16. Prélude
17. La Brise (The Breeze) – Philippe Estèphe (baritone)
18. La Splendeur vide (Empty splendour) – Jérôme Boutillier (baritone)
19. La Solitaire (The lonely woman) – Éléonore Pancrazi (mezzo-soprano)
20. Sabre en main (Sword in hand) – Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor)
21. Interlude
22. Au cimetière (In the graveyard) – Anaïs Constans (soprano)
23. Tournoiement, Songe d'opium (Spinning, An opium dream) – Axelle Fanyo (soprano)

The book
Alexandre Dratwicki: ‘In the shadow of Samson’
Vincent Giroud: ‘La Princesse jaune: orientalism and artificial paradises’
Stéphane Leteuré: ‘The misfortunes of La Princesse jaune
Ernest Reyer: ‘The evening of the premiere’
Full Libretto
Sung texts – Mélodies persanes

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