Grand opèra en cinq actes et sept tableaux. Running Time: 3 hours 10 minutes.
George Bernard Shaw, who attended the premiere in 1890, had this to say of Ascanio:
“I need not waste my words on the music of it. There is not an original phrase in it from beginning to end.”
I know Shaw was a devout Wagnerian who probably knew nothing of French music, but I agree with his assessment of the score, to a point. But what of the plot? It is based on an 1852 play entitled Benvenuto Cellini, (the opera was renamed in order to avoid confusion with the famous work by Berlioz), which in turn was based on the 1843 novel Ascanio by Alexandre Dumas, père. Why anyone thought that a change of name would be required (the idea of this being a success?) is beyond me as the Berlioz opera is light years beyond this once in a century produced thing.
SETTING: Fontainebleu, Paris, Nesle, 1539. Benvenuto Cellini (baritone) and his assistant Ascanio (tenor) are both in love with the beautiful Colombe (soprano), the daughter of the Provost of Paris (tenor). This romantic complication is made more confusing by two women who are respectively in love with the two men: A model named Scozzone (contralto) is in love with Cellini, and a Duchesse (soprano) is in love with Ascanio. The Duchesse, however, is the mistress of King François (bass) and is known to take lovers on the side and have them murdered to avoid accusations of infidelity to the King. Cellini allows the relationship to flower for the two young people (and has the King give his blessing for the couple to wed), but realizing that the life of Colombe is endangered by the two other women, hides her in a reliquary (!) that he has completed on commission from a local convent, planning to spirit her away there. The Duchesse learns of this and has the reliquary diverted to her own estate, where she plans to have Colombe suffocate. Scozzone sacrifices herself by replacing Colombe in the reliquary out of guilt for having conspired with the Duchesse in this murderous plot.
Incidentally, the first production at the Palais Garnier was poorly received and the opera has only been revived twice since, in 1921 and 2018 (when it was recorded). Sections of the twelve movement ballet have had an afterlife transcribed for solo flute, but otherwise this work has remained in a shadowy corner of operatic history. That said, I seem to be in the minority regarding the neglect of this opera. But I am the Opera Hipster , and so long as there is an opera to be reviewed featuring a pseudo-historical plot I will do it–even if it kills me!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (58 minutes)
Scene 1: The workshop of Benvenuto Cellini, Paris.
7: Si loin et si haut The opening scene starts off with an attractive minute-long Beethovenesque orchestral introductory fugue (there isn’t enough of this) which flows immediately into a musically rather dull comic scene between Cellini and Pagolo as they discuss business (the theme from the intro wrestles to come back on and forms most of the structure in the first ten minutes of the opera). Ascanio eventually wakes up (after a brief chorus marks noon, apparently he is a millennial…), but one has probably noticed some rather awkward patches of seemingly atonal music already from the strings which give the impression that Saint-Saëns was on autopilot. I worry if this will continue for the rest of the opera…. Ascanio has a forlorn little love song * (for whom exactly?). The vocal line is firm and attractive, but the orchestration is rather random and fragmentary (the viola is annoying) and the thing doesn’t last long (less than ninety seconds).
11, 24: Jaloux de tous!/J’attends l’Empereur Charles-Quint Scozzone arrives to some more recit and Cellini compares her to Venus and Diana. They embark on a somewhat bittersweet duet * (this is the best number in the entire act, and it sounds very much like the Marguerite theme from Faust). She warns Cellini that Ascanio is in danger if he gets too involved with the Duchesse d′Étampes. Suddenly the King arrives (with the Duchesse) to somewhat abortive fanfare and he makes his addresses to Cellini to a beguiling flute and harp accompanied recitative. Left alone, the Duchesse embarks on a dull if flirty seduction of the impressionable apprentice (this is boring, I will make no apology for this). In many ways the orchestration seems detached from the action and what the singers are doing. After about three minutes of this and a warning from Scozzone, the King returns and he orders that Cellini bring a statue of Jupiter he has been working on to a night party at the Fontainebleu, which has been set up to impress the visiting Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor *. He also orders Cellini to a new studio in the town of Nesle (pronounced Nel for my non-Francophone readers, and not like a certain chocolate company), located in the Somme department, 126 kilometres northeast of Paris, before departing amid regal orchestral fabulousness.
Scene 2: In front of an Augustinian Convent.
27: Quand nous serons devenus The scene opens with a jovial chorus of students * which is rather more energetic than anything in the first scene. Ascanio and Colombe meet cute in that way that only occurs in French opera, that is, to an ethereal orchestration.
35: Allez, pourtant, mes chers enfants A strolling Mendicant monk drives the couple to piety *, thus confirming the blessed purity of their love. Effective if a little saccharine and dramatically of no point whatsoever. A somewhat ornery chorus arrives tormenting D’Estourville, the father of the girl. Cellini manages to rescue him.
41: Ah! la plaisante audace! There is a very brief conclusion to this chorus that is interesting, just before the Duchesse arrives *. Scozzone and she converse before Ascanio encounters them, but Cellini breaks up the audience and enrages the Duchesse by so doing.
46: Il est deux nobles cœurs que j’aime He explains * to her that two things matter to him: Ascanio and the will of his commissioner, in this case, that of the King. He does not want Ascanio to die, nor for the King to be dishonoured. The Duchesse takes this as a personal insult and goes into the convent chapel swearing vengeance.
55: D’Estourville! D’Estourville! A bizarre end to the act *: the chorus of students comes bouncing on, Ascanio gives an a cappella sales pitch for Cellini but they all laugh at him. Estourville, in a Meistersinger bit of vengeance and perhaps an attack of the dreadful Wahn sets the students and the apprentices of Cellini against each other in a street brawl as the curtain falls.
ACT 2: (50 minutes)
Scene 1: The workshop of Cellini, Nesle.
1: Lalalalala…Fiorentinelle! An incredibly bizarre workmen scene for the workmen. It is followed by a retro bel canto-ish song from Scozzone *. Pagolo comes on and the apprentices all think the ovens are about to explore and thus kill everyone (this does not happen).
7, 17: A l’ombre des noires tours/O douce Hébé Ascanio comes on and sings a love song about the beautiful flowers of the gardens here in Nesle *, and which seems to be based on the Spring Song (the one in Die Walkure). Cellini comes on and tells him that the Emperor Charles is arriving that evening and orders everyone out so he can reflect. Colombe comes on and sings an at first a cappella aria which eventually gets some orchestral accompaniment. This is the fourth aria in less than fifteen minutes, but we are not finished, as Cellini gets another solo following that of Colombe in which he addresses the goddess Hebe ** ending in a good orchestral sweep. Although not great, this is probably the best number in the opera so far. Who is his muse? Is it Scozzone or Colombe? The former confronts him indignantly.
26: Un divin mais fol amour Cellini greets the news of the summons of the King with excitement and embarks on a duet ** with Ascanio (there is a hint of the prelude to Orazi e Curiazi). Scozzone arrives with another letter, in which it is revealed that the Duchesse has gotten the King to banish Cellini from his presence (although not from France because he wants all these commissions). The scene ends in a fury.
Scene 2: The Louvre.
34: Adieu, beauté, ma mie The King sings a meandering love song to the Duchesse. The scene is more interesting for the bel canto vocal effects from the soprano than the bass part *. Ascanio arrives to some happy nature music and he encounters the Duchesse who encourages him to ambition.
42: J’ai fait un rêve enchanteur Ascanio, the idiot, rightly admits that he is a low-life, but also his love for Colombe, thus attracting the ire of the Duchesse who from that moment plots to kill the girl *. Colombe shows up just at that moment and the Duchesse attacks her. Ascanio tries to curb the two women.
46: Ah! me taire… Ascanio makes a public declaration of love to Colombe in front of the Duchesse **. The loves embark on a duet as the Duchesse thickens things with her continued avowal of vengeance, providing for a fiery conclusion to the act.
ACT 3: Le jardin Fontainebleu. (35 minutes)
5: Sire, écoutez-moi ! The act consists mostly of pageantry. Standard Glory to the King chorus followed by an interesting interaction between King François and Emperor Charles. This scene has to be interpreted historically in the context of post-Franco-Prussian War France (the war being only 20 years earlier): the idea of the German Emperor as the guest of the King of France. Cellini comes on asking the King to reconsider casting him out of his presence *. The Duchesse then fills Scozzone in on just how she plans on avenging herself on Cellini and Ascanio: by murdering Colombe! Details will be negotiated later. Meanwhile Colombe is apparently to be married off to a Duke of Orbec. The King might change his mind, if Cellini produces something exceptional.
11: With all that over with, there is nothing left for the act except for a long, 24 minutes, ballet of pseudo-Lully design (and 12 parts) on a subject from Greco-Roman mythology *. This one is a bit of a mess: Venus, Juno, and Pallas Athena show up followed by Diana, then Bacchus and then Phoebus-Apollo with the Muses. After an interlude for Amor and Psyche, the dispute over the Golden Apple occurs (it is given to the Duchesse by Amor) and the act ends with an Apotheosis.
ACT 4: Same as Act 2 Scene 1. (30.5 minutes)
5: Hélas, ma douleur soutiendra The Duchesse and Scozzone learn from Pagolo that Cellini plans on hiding Colombe from them in a reliquary that has been produced for a local Ursuline convent where the Queen-Mother lives (she being the godmother of Colombe). Once she is within the convent walls, no one could get to her. The Duchesse tells Scozzone that she will have the reliquary brought to her own estate, and have Colombe suffocate in it until she is dead. Scozzone decides that she will be the one that will die *. Ascanio and Colombe come on and go through the plan.
8: Inclinez-vous, mon lis A quartet, of sorts, forms the heart of the act, with Scozzone and Cellini joining in the preparations **. Three and a half minutes in there is a quotation from the act one love duet from Don Carlos. Although it lulls at times, at its best this quartet contains the finest music in the entire opera.
17: O bonté profonde Another, this time rather prayerful, section of the long quartet *** (by far the very best, if anything here is getting three-star this is even if I am iffy about giving it). Scozzone is left to start putting her plan into action. Soldiers of the King arrive at the workshop and Cellini tries to convince Scozzone that he is in fact in love with her. She goes, Orbec arrives with orders to arrest Cellini and Ascanio for conspiracy with Colombe against the order of the King. A woman they all think is Scozzone goes with Orbec.
27: Scozzone, au revoir… Cellini says goodbye to Scozzone * (themes from the prelude to act one get shuffled about. The act ends with the workers singing a somewhat starchy song to Jupiter (touches of the act two finale of Lohengrin).
ACT 5: A vast oratory in the Louvre, the reliquary in an alcove stage left, three days later. (16 minutes).
0, 6: Dans sa splendeur impérissable The act opens with a gracefully sober prelude * (hints of Romeo et Juliette). The Duchesse keeps watch, knowing that in this time her victim has been killed inside the reliquary. She gets interrupted by a holy prayer ** from basically everyone else in the company.
10: O force immense du génie! The King has been impressed with the statue of Jupiter and so grants Cellini any request. He asks that Ascanio marry Colombe. This is granted, although at first the Duchesse tries to convince everyone that the bride is dead but when she come on and stands before her, obviously alive, the Duchesse starts to wonder: who is in the reliquary? All, apart from her, praises this happy turn of events ** but they all start asking, who is in the reliquary? Cellini breaks open the reliquary and finds Scozzone. In horror he declares that his youth and life have died with her.
Where do I begin? Tim Ashley reviewed this 2018 recording for Gramophone and he must have been high on some sort of illegal opioid because the review is extremely positive and even apologetic of Saint-Saëns. The only things I can say for this recording are that it is complete and that the singers and orchestra put their best effort into it. The most sympathetic of the characters is the weirdly named Scozzone, mostly because she sacrifices herself and is a contralto. Her death is rather disturbing, even a bit unbearable. The Duchesse is more noxious and annoyingly pompous and callous than truly villainous, and the male characters are either lackies (Estourville, Orbec), imperious (François), naïve man-waifs (Ascanio), or very stereotypically noble (Cellini). Colombe is a traditional French opera ingenue, and really not much more than that.
There is none of the great comedy or suspense of the Berlioz opera, and the primary drama of the plot is driven by three of the most uninteresting female characters in all opera. Instead we get a lot of spectacle, including a 24 minute long ballet (never a good sign), and a series of choral numbers. The last three acts are comparatively brief to the first two (which run for close to two hours in an opera that is just over three), with the fourth being just over one-half hour and the fifth a mere 16 minutes.
But the fact remains that Ascanio isn’t really all that great and hype about it is really just that, hype. There are, in theory, arias, but they lack any cohesive structure, instead functioning on the basis of musical fragments. The score gives the impression that Saint-Saëns composed it in bursts, as snatches of melody pop in for five to thirty seconds and then die. Nothing lasts more than two minutes at most and much of it seems to have been composed virtually on autopilot with limp accompaniments and few obvious melodies. Shaw was correct: there is nothing original here at all and the many, many people who have written tomes in an attempt to apologize for this thing (which includes Gounod of all people, which in my opinion is not saying much for the work) are engaging in wishful thinking at best. Some of it is fine, two or three numbers are vaguely entertaining, (personally, the act two aria for Cellini and his very brief duet with Ascanio in the same scene and the act four quartet are the best numbers, along with the choral effects in act five, even if they all drag at times) but I am constantly reminded of multiple other operas that pulled off what is in this score far better ranging from Beethoven (the sparse symphonic elements) to Bizet (the choruses and usage of chimes, although there is even a quotation from Carmen in the opening), to, yes, Gounod, Donizetti (for some reason Saint-Saëns brings in a lot of bel canto, to all six of the lead roles), Verdi, and Wagner. Much of the music for Ascanio himself is similar to Joncière of all people. And what the heck is up with the patches of atonality in act one?!? The biggest problem with Ascanio is not that the music is boring, only a minority of it truly is in all honesty, but that none of its music has any originality. It just too closely resembles too many other 19th century compositions. I frequently found myself baffled by how bizarre many of the ideas in this opera are and frustrated by the random outbursts of nothingness coming from the strings. B- maybe a solid B if I don’t want to enrage too many people (not out of personal opinion) but frankly there are better Saint-Saens operas more worthy of your time.