Opera Review: Saint-Saëns’ “Phryné” — Short and Witty, and Rediscovered

By Ralph P. Locke

An hour-long opera the world has forgotten — a world premiere recording by Saint-Saëns Phryne.

Saint-Saens Phryne

Florie Valiquette (Phryné), Anaïs Constans (Lampito), Cyrille Dubois (Nicias), François Rougier (Cynalopex), Thomas Dolié (Dicéphile), Patrick Bolleire (Agoragine/A Herald)

Spiritual Choir Concert, Rouen Normandy Opera Orchestra, dir. Herve Niquet

Bru Zane 1047—65 minutes

To buy, click here. To hear the contents of each track, click here.

I drew attention here to The fuse of the arts to a number of important but largely overlooked short operas, mostly in one act (or two or three very short acts). One-act operas “don’t get much respect” in an operatic culture that tends to be obsessed with grandeur and high intensity: yes, most shorter operas are intimate, and many are quite humorous and conversational . So they do best in a small space, often with singers able to convey subtle nuances, accompanied by the slightest gesture of face and hand that would get lost in the vast halls we have built (or at least used) for the performance. opera over the years. last century, such as the Met in New York and the Civic Opera Building in Chicago (which houses the Lyric Opera of Chicago).

At artistic fuse I have already reviewed, with pleasure, recordings of short operas by Saint-Saëns, Pauline Viardot, Reynaldo Hahn, Granados, Zemlinsky, Lennox Berkeley, the Swiss composer Richard Flury and the Bostonian Marti Epstein. The postman now brings me another little gem by Saint-Saëns, produced (like the previous one) by the Center de Musique Romantique Française, which is located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane (in Venice, Italy).

The Palazzetto’s ‘Bru Zane’ label has become one of the most important for classical and light classical music (including operetta) over the past decade. Bru Zane’s recordings are entirely devoted to forgotten French works, some of which were very popular in their time. The scores are carefully edited, from the best surviving sources, by Center scholars. And each CD set is accompanied by a small hardcover book containing informative and incisive essays, often written by renowned specialists, as well as sung texts and stage directions, all in French and good English. The company’s early releases were misleadingly labeled, on the spine of the book, Ediciones Singulares (and given order numbers beginning with “ES”); but it was simply the name of the book printer.

Over the past decade, Bru Zane has brought us major works by Johann Christian Bach (yes, an opera he wrote in French, for the Paris Opera!), Spontini, Gounod, Offenbach, Lalo, Massenet , Reynaldo Hahn, and others. And four little-known operas by Saint-Saëns.

Well, make it five, and the last one is shorter than most of them (except for the delicious one-act The yellow princess) but not inferior in inspiration and finesse. Phryne was first performed in 1893, in a version with lively spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, just as in most examples of opéra-comique and opéra-bouffe of the time, although in this case the dialogue is in verse and not in prose. Three years later, André Messager composed recitatives so that Phryne could be performed in theaters in Italy and elsewhere that required a work to be entirely sung. (Carmenlikewise, turned its dialogue into a recitative for performances abroad.)

It is the all-sung version that we hear here, magnificently staged by a cast led by Florie Valiquette (by turns voluptuous and, in moments of coloratura, fluid and ethereal) and Cyrille Dubois (one of my favorite light tenors at the moment), under the lively baton of Hervé Niquet. The choir’s many short contributions are intoned with exquisite control and dramatic punch.

This engaging work is based on the historic (or perhaps semi-legendary) figure in ancient Greek history known as Phryne. Its beauty was so perfect and complete that, it is said, the great sculptor Praxiteles used it as a model for a statue which was widely admired and copied. We also read that Phryne was accused of profaning the mysteries of Eleusis and was brought before the Areopagus (the high court of Athens). Apparently she or her attorney revealed some part of her body and she was acquitted because her beauty was so divinely perfect.

Well, it wasn’t a plot that could be staged in great detail at the Opéra-Comique in 1893, but Saint-Saëns adapted a play that used the famous episode as a way to poke fun at the smugness and hypocrisy of the wealthy men who ruled ancient Athens (or, one might imagine, Paris of 1893, or almost any city today). In short, the important leader Dicéphile falls in love with the beautiful Phryné, who nevertheless loves the spendthrift nephew of the old man Nicias. (It is not the same Nicias as that of Massenet Thais.) Phryne tricks Dicéphile into visiting him, where she appears to promise him access to her, only to show him . . . the naked statue. Nicias enters and finds his uncle prostrate before the statue. Dicéphile is humiliated and fears that Nicias will point out his misbehavior (including presumably what he has intended do when he shows up at Phryne’s). He therefore agrees to give Nicias the important inheritance to which the latter has been entitled for some time (having reached the age of majority), and the two young people, implied, are now free to live a happy and comfortable life together.

The music is melodious, colorful (lots of beautiful wind solos), evocative of the ancient world (some modal melodies sung in unison with plucked or arpeggiated accompaniment), and always supports the particular plot moment. Several solos and ensembles could become concert classics and recital records: “O ma Phryné” by Nicias, ultra-short “L’homme n’est pas sans defect” by Dicéphile, “Un soir j’errais” by Phryné (followed by a magnificent little trio with his servant Lampito – a trouser role – and Nicias) or “It’s here that Phryné lives” by Lampito. Critics pointed to the Offenbach-esque cut of some lighter moments. (I also suspect a certain influence of Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini.) They mentioned less often the many beautiful moments of true feeling (between Phryne and Nicias) and the wonderfully done passages of satirical pomp and false grandeur (one of which may have influenced Virgil Thomson’s opening music Four Saints in Three Acts).

I thought I had picked up a faint reminder of a melodic moment in Bizet’s magnificent one-act Djamilé. There are certainly parallels with the phrases and modulating devices in Saint-Saëns’ own style. Samson and Delilah, just as we find similarities between two operas by Verdi (or between two by Wagner). None of these familiar moments and devices from other works by Saint-Saëns are problematic: the opera is a rapid succession of delights, to be savored over and over. To learn more about the rich musicodramatic imagination at work in PhryneI recommend the chapter from Hugh Macdonald’s recent article Saint-Saëns and the Theatera book rightly described by critics as “masterful”.

The recitatives Messager composed to replace spoken dialogue are voluminous (unlike the ultra-concise ones Ernest Guiraud created for Carmen) and beautifully crafted, judiciously using the motifs of Saint-Saëns’ musical numbers. This is clearly the same composer whose attention to character and drama is evident in Madame Chrysanthemumfirst performed a few months earlier, or in his 1897 operetta Little Michu (see my exam in the scientific journal 19th century music review).

I often had a little trouble knowing where a recitative ended and where the next number began. The people at Bru Zane added to my confusion. Almost every track begins with a recitative (from Messager) and continues into the aria, a two-stanza song, a brief duet, or whatever (from Saint-Saëns), making it impossible to jump to any given number that Saint-Saëns wrote. Worse, the track listing prints the first words of each recitative, omitting the title of the next number!

Soprano Florie Valiquette, by turns voluptuous and, in moments of coloratura, fluid and ethereal. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

We could always use a recording with spoken dialogue between the numbers. But whichever record company tries this, it’ll take an all-French cast to do justice to the tightly worded, subtly witty spoken dialogue, as that cast does for the recitatives of Messager. Or order a witty translation in the language of the distribution.

Characterized sharpness French radio broadcast from 1960 can be heard on YouTube, featuring the formidable Denise Duval (Poulenc’s favorite singer), but it skips widely from one Saint-Saëns number to the next, making the story impossible to follow, despite the occasional clarification of a well-meaning narrator.

In the meantime, here we have the fully sung version of one of Saint-Saëns’ most remarkable scores—for the first time ever, with many minutes of equally delectable Saint-Saëns-inspired Messager. What all lovers of French music have to thank the dedicated scholars and organizers of Palazzetto Bru Zane!

And, finally, a suggestion to the organizers of opera festivals and collegiate opera companies: two or three short works can be grouped together to make up a diversified and entertaining afternoon or evening. I imagine Saint-Saëns Phryne as the last sparkly element after, say, the Granados enthusiast Goyecas and the disturbing of Menotti The way (or Rimsky-Korsakov’s strange Mozart and Salieri).


Ralph P. Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Writing. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and Exotics from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second is also an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Records Guide and online art magazines New York Arts, opera todayand Boston’s musical intelligence. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the program books of major opera houses, for example Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). This review first appeared in American Records Guide and appears here with kind permission.

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