Gounod & Saint-Saens at Buxton Festival
Planet Hugill by Robert Hugill
The 2013 Buxton Festival opened with a double bill of French operas comiques, by Saint-Saens and by Gounod. Both composers are very well known and both have operas in the standard canon, but Gounod’s La Colombe is rarely performed, and Saint-Saens La Princesse Jaune almost never. Both operas turned out to be full of charm and felicity, and were given in appealing productions directed by Francis Matthews and designed by Lez Brotherston. Strong casts, including Anne Sophie Duprels, Ryan MacPherson, Gillian Keith, Emma Carrington and Jonathan Best were conducted by Buton’s Artistic Director Stephen Barlow and the Northern Chamber Orchestra was in the pit.
Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune was premiered in 1872 at the Opera Comique in the same bill as Bizet’s Djamilleh. Neither was successful and Saint-Saens’ was accused of Wagnerism. A surprising accusation today. His opera comique, with a libretto by Louis Gallet, lasts just 45 minutes and has simply two characters Lena, Anne Sophie Duprels, and Ryan MacPherson, Kornelis. Kornelis is an artist, obsessed with Japan and in love with image of a Japanese girl painted in his room. His cousin Lena, tidies up after him but is in love with him, despairing at competing with his obsession with a non-existent woman. She considers giving up on her love for him, but he takes opium and hallucinates. Seeing Lena as the Japanese woman and declares his love for her. When he awakes, they manage to clear the air and Kornelis admits how much he loves the real Lena.
The plot is rather slight, barely credible in fact, but Saint-Saens has written a score which is full of melody and charm. He departs from the standard opera comique structure of arias alternating with dialogue, to write a long through-composed scene for when Kornelis is hallucinating. Saint-Saens was a great melodist and all of the music in the opera has great melodic felicity, there are some good tunes. The composer obviously had great fun writing the mock Japanese pieces with their use of pentatonic scales.
Ryan MacPherson as Kornelis, looking every inch the artist with a goatee beard and straggly long hair, benefited the most from the Japanese theme and MacPherson got two extremely delightful arias contemplating Japan. MacPherson made a fine Kornelis, not entirely French of tone in his singing, but committed and producing a robustly attractive tone. He was well partnered by Anne Sophie Duprels, who displayed a very fine gift for comedy as the rather disapproving Lena. Duprels is a very memorable actress and here she brought all her character to bear, her Lena radiated disapproval during all of Kornelis’s exotic meanderings. Duprels’ character had the slightly more serious music, and Saint-Saens seemed to take her seriously.
Lez Brotherston had designed a delightfully grotty attic for Kornelis, set loosely in the 1890s and hiding behind a huge advert for absinthe (a hint at the origins of Kornelis’s obsession).
The piece’s plot is slight, but the sheer felicity of Saint-Saens’ melodies meant that we had a delightful evening, made all the more pleasing because Matthews and his cast took the piece seriously and did not send it up. In the pit Stephen Barlow clearly enjoyed the work and drew some fine delicate playing from the Northern Sinfonia.
La Princesse Jaune does not deserve to disappear again and I hope that other companies will follow Buxton’s lead.
Gounod’s La Colombe was rather more popular on its first performance in 1860. Written for Baden Baden, it was taken up by the Opera Comique and has since had a toe hold on the repertoire. Buxton first performed the work 30 years ago. In 1924 Diaghilev mounted the work in Monte Carlo and for these performances he commissioned Poulenc to replace some of the spoken dialogue, of which there was a great deal, with recitative. It was in this more compact version that Buxton performed it.
When the curtain went up, director Francis Matthews and designer Lez Brotherston gave us something of a coup. The action of Gounod’s La Colombe took place in the same apartment building as La Princesse Jaune, in the flat below and Brotherston’s set clearly showed Kornelis’s apartment in the attic. In fact, during the overture, we saw Lena (Anne Sophie Duprels) appear at one point. A delightful way of linking things, without making too much of it.
Whilst La Princesse Jaune was sung in the original French, La Colombe was sung in an English translation by Hugh Macdonald. An entirely practical decision, as La Colombe has a greater degree of farce in its makeup, but it did make for a slightly odd junction.
The plot is no more sensible than the first opera in the double bill. Horace (Ryan MacPherson) is down on his uppers having spent all his money on Sylvia (Gillian Keith), who did not return his love. Horace has kept just a dove, which he has named Sylvia. He lives in squalor with his servant Mazet (Emma Carrington). He is approached by Maitre Jean (Jonathan Best), who is Sylvia’s major-domo, as she would like to get the dove as her rival has a parrot which does tricks to entertain the members of her salon.
Sylvia agrees to stay to dinner at Horace’s and, despite the face that Maitre Jean is a fine cook, there is nothing to eat. There is nothing for it, they have to cook the dove. After the meal, Sylvia explains to Horace why she has come and he is devastated. However Mazet appears with the live dove, he managed to trap and kill the rival parrot. So all ends happily.
Gounod’s opera is less structurally daring than Saint-Saens, simply sequences of arias separated by dialogue (and Poulenc’s recitative), with occasional ensembles notably at the end of acts.
Emma Carrington was brilliant in the travesty role of Mazet, convincing from the word go as a rather grubby servant boy, fully of charm and cunning. A truly outstanding performance. She/he gets the operas opening aria as Mazet sings whilst feeding the live dove (here in a cage). Ryan MacPherson displayed not a trace of his earlier artistic persona, and was greatly buttoned up as Horace, in love but having difficulty saying it.
Jonathan Best also displayed superb comic talent as Maitre Jean. The smallest of the four parts perhaps, but Best certainly made his presence count and was particularly notably for being funny whilst not apparently doing anything.
Sylvia is a showy coloratura role and Gounod writes a suitable show-off-y aria for the character, all trills and roulades. Gillian Keith was full of charm in the role, pert and attractive but with a heart underneath and she clearly has the technical apparatus to cope with the fioriture, complete with a lovely trill. But on this opening night there was something of an edge to her voice at time, which I hope disappears as she relaxes during the run.
La Colombe has great charm and is fun, though I did not feel that Gounod’s melodic skill quite matched that of Saint-Saens. Also, despite the cast working well as a superb ensemble, I did find that the piece sagged a bit and I have to admit that I felt a few judicious cuts might have been in order.
Again Stephen Barlow and the Northern Chamber Orchestra gave us a delightful light confection in the pit.
This was an evening full of charm. Both pieces need care to come over and I have to commend Francis Matthews, Stephen Barlow and their casts for the way they presented the pieces with delight and charm, without a heavy hand and without sending them up. Both Saint-Saens and Gounod were paid the compliment of being taking completely seriously and played with just the right amount of lightness of touch. Always a tricky thing to get this type of French comedy right and Buxton did just that.