La Princesse Jaune & La Colombe
The choice of works for this year’s Festival Double Bill feature at Buxton were perhaps not the most challenging or adventurous works (there is however another pairing of Sciarrino’s Luci mie Traditici and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King if you’re looking for something rather bolder), but as well as reviving two undeservedly obscure works that one would rarely ever have the opportunity to see elsewhere, the pairing here of two opéra-comique works by Camille Sant-Saëns and Charles Gounod proved to be perfectly complementary, highly entertaining and maybe even a little thought provoking.
Considered on their own merits it has to be said that neither of the two short works are ever likely to enter standard repertory or ever be considered alongside such grand and great works by the composers of Samson et Dalila and Faust, but the intentions and the audiences for both Saint-Saëns’ La Princesse Jaune and Gounod’s La Colombe are very different. Composed for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, both works are musically and dramatically typical examples of the comic operetta, with no greater ambitions than to provide a bit of light entertainment. If the musical approach differs between the two composers – one interesting element that is highlighted by their being performed together like this – one thing that they have in common is that they are very much of their time.
Buxton however very cleverly linked the two works together by playing to their somewhat La Bohème character, both works taking place in neighbouring apartments of a dilapidated building in a rather shabby quarter of Paris. La Princesse Jaune (The Yellow Princess), although originally set in Holland, here takes place in the bohemian garret of two artists. One of them, Kornélis is obsessed with the image of a Japanese woman (dressed in a yellow kimono here to make the racial implications of the title less problematic) that he is compelled to endlessly paint. He is so obsessed with the painted lady that he doesn’t notice that his cousin Léna – who rather scandalously seems to share the apartment with him – is in love with him. Under the influence of who knows what drug or concoction, Kornélis however starts to believe that Léna is his Princess come to life and only eventually comes to the realisation of his love for ‘the real thing’.
La Princesse Jaune a little bit repetitive in its elaboration of this simple and absurd situation through a series of duets and solo pieces for two singers, but it’s beautifully composed and structured nonetheless. It’s partly a satire on the obsession with all things Oriental during the period when it was written (1872) and Sant-Saëns even introduces pastiche pentatonic scale Japanese themes into the music, but he also defines the romantic flights of fancy of Kornélis with his poetic musings on love and beauty with the rather more down-to-earth immediate concerns of Léna. One can’t live on poetry even though it burns very nicely as we’ve seen in La Bohème, and like Rodolfo and Mimi the man and the woman have very different ideals on the subject of love. In a way however, as light and entertaining as it is, La Princess Jaune nonetheless explores questions of illusion and reality in the transformative power of art and love to enrich our rather more mundane lives.
Different ideals on the question of love and the necessity nonetheless of putting food on the table are also to the fore in Gounod’s La Colombe (The Dove). This is a very different side of Gounod from the familiar grand scale compositions – even if Faust was itself also originally written for the Opéra-Comique with sections of spoken dialogue. La Colombe on the other hand is very much an operetta in its subject matter as well as in its light musical numbers. Performed in English here at Buxton, it’s similarity to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan or with an Oscar Wilde comic farce are even more evident.
The question of a romantic ideal here can be symbolised within the figure of the dove (which fortuitously rhymes with love in English). Horace keeps it as a memory of his love for the Countess, and even names it Sylvia after her. He’s still faithful to the memory of the love they once shared even though she mistreated him, spent all his money and then abandoned him, leaving him penniless. Horace and his servant Mazet now eke out a miserable existence in an unsavoury district of Paris, housed just below a couple of disreputable artists on the floor above, one of whom has an obsession with all things Japanese (Anne Sophie Duprels’ Léna making a cameo appearance during the overture here).
Musically, La Colombe doesn’t appear to offer the same riches that can be found in the Sant-Saëns work that preceded it, but here in its two-act 1866 version, it’s similarly well-constructed and has a rather more entertaining variety in the series of mishaps of its plot when Sylvia turns up looking to purchase the dove. She has no romantic notions associated with the dove, but rather just wants it as another social fashion to compete with the parrot owned by her rival, the Countess Amalia. Keen to show the depths of his devotion to his former lover but unable to provide her with a suitable meal, Horace, unaware of the nature of her visit, orders Mazet and Maître Jean (Sylvia’s manservant) to serve up the only fresh and edible food in the house – the dove.
On their own merit then neither work is of any great depth, but as usual they way that they are brought together is intriguing and, in many ways, they each enhance the other and bring out common elements that might not otherwise be noticed. In order to do that however, the performances have to be strong and consistent and that’s one of Buxton’s strong points. Every element is in perfect accord with the other, the whole thing thoughtfully considered and presented in an ingenious stage design by Lez Brotherston that allows this cross-pollination to occur. The musical interpretation under Stephen Barlow was absolutely marvellous, both works delivered with verve and character and sung magnificently by a very strong cast.
Undoubtedly however, the key to the success of bring these rather old-fashioned works to life lies with the direction of Francis Matthews. Every movement and gesture, every line of dialogue and tone of delivery in the singing was used to bring out the full richness of the comic potential of the works and even finding unexpected depths by linking common themes between them. Great works they are perhaps not, but this year’s Festival Double Bill was a richly entertaining concoction and a showcase for the kind of talent that is a hallmark of the Buxton Festival.