Festival Double Bill – La Princesse Jaune & La Colombe
The Guardian by George Hall
Buxton opens its festival with a double bill of French fripperies, premiered within a dozen years of each other – Gounod’s La Colombe in 1860 and Saint-Saëns’s La Princesse Jaune in 1872 – and both of them now largely forgotten. Up first, in Francis Matthews’s easygoing production, is the Saint-Saëns, which turns out to be a small musical masterpiece, even if its dramatic material is slight.
Lez Brotherston’s set is the studio of the artist Kornélis, dominated by his handsome portrait of a Japanese woman wearing an opulent yellow robe, who has started to obsess him; aware that drugs are feeding this fantasy relationship, his cousin Léna gradually leads him back to reality. Saint-Saëns’s enchanting score makes clever use of quasi-Japanese musical ideas and comes over with real distinction in the hands of conductor Stephen Barlow; Anne-Sophie Duprels is the earnest Léna, Ryan MacPherson the troubled Bohemian Kornélis.
As the curtain goes up for the second piece, we discover that living beneath Kornélis is Horace, penniless hero of Gounod’s garrulous comedy. Eager to acquire Horace’s pet dove, Countess Sylvia apparently finds it served up for her dinner instead – though in the event the culinary sacrifice turns out to be a social rival’s parrot. Either way, and despite the endless charm of Gounod’s music, the piece goes on far too long, especially in the 1866 two-act expansion played here, with some additional recitatives written by Poulenc for a 1924 production by Diaghilev thrown in.
The cast nevertheless give it their all, with MacPherson returning as the resourceful Horace, manfully supported by Emma Carrington as his mezzo male servant, as well as by Jonathan Best as the Countess’s butler. Gillian Keith sparkles as Sylvia, and once again, Barlow and the Northern Chamber Orchestra display a perfect French accent.