Camille Saint-Saens: Étienne Marcel (1879)

Opera en quatre actes et cinq tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes (not including ballet and some cuts).

Saint-Saens can be an acquired taste. Although a brilliant orchestrator, his compositional form (a blending of French Baroque, Mozart, and Neo-classicalism) is not universally attractive. His operas are academic, and based on serious material, but generally emotionally dry and melodically mediocre, sometimes crude, and oftentimes dull and boring. The term bloodless is frequently used. Most of the musical ideas that he comes up with in his operas sound infantile and unoriginal (or they are seemingly direct quotations from the works of other composers), and if not for the ingenious way in which he orchestrates the best of these, he would come off entirely as infantile, or even as a plagiarist. In many ways he was a transitionary composer, caught between Meyerbeer and Massenet, and although perhaps better than both in other musical forms, in opera he was very much their inferior. By 1901, with the critics divided by age regarding his most recent opera Les barbares (oldies loved it, youngsters thought it was inane and archaic) no one less than Claude Debussy ridiculed Saint-Saens for bothering the Parisian public by persisting to write operas no one wanted to hear. I mention Debussy here partially because the piano reduction of the ballet of this opera was actually arranged by him. The only indisputably great Saint-Saens opera was and is Henry VIII (which from its première until his death nearly forty years later remained in the repertoire), but the rest, including Samson et Dalila, suffer from being dramatically senseless and/or musically mind-numbing.

NOTE: This recording on YouTube apparently has the two middle acts out of order. It goes, first, third, second, fourth. The second act starts at 51 minutes into the video. The performance itself is cut (and cut up). I reviewed this while looking at a vocal score and will narrate the missing parts. The biggest cut is the ballet. The first act appears to be complete, the second has lost its last fifteen pages, the third act (sans ballet) gets partially given as act three and partially rearranged into the fourth act which also seems to be mildly cut.

SETTING: Paris, 1358. The plot, such as it is, centres on an historic rebellion that took place in Paris against Charles V (contralto) when he was still Dauphin and being advised by Robert de Clermont (bass) during the Hundred Years War. With the city under the possibility of siege by the English, the merchants of the city, led by Étienne Marcel (baritone), rebel against the Dauphin, egged on by the evil Jehan Maillard (bass) whom I think I can reveal without spoilers kills Marcel at the end of the opera (and did so in reality). His daughter, Beatrix Marcel (soprano), is in love with Robert (tenor), the squire of the Dauphin, although what this matters to the plot of the opera other than to create a romantic sub-plot is anyones guess.


ACT 1: The Piliers de Halles, 1358. (29 minutes)

4: Le bon sénéchal de Poitiers The opera opens in perhaps the most stereotypical way imaginable: with a stern dramatic B-flat in four octaves. The strings and woodwinds float about, suspended for a while before half way through the horns come in briefly, there is another climatic build up, everything goes quiet, and we end up with a Chinese-y tune which directly goes into the opening drinking chorus. Eustace sings an alright soldier song * to a lite military trot. Robert and Pierre discuss how the former is in love with Beatrix Marcel, the daughter of Étienne.

9: Damoiselle, un instant! Beatrix herself arrives and gets unsolicitedly manhandled by the drunken men * (this seems rather painfully similar to Michaela and the soldiers in act one of Carmen). Robert saves her and the men retire. Étienne himself arrives, surprised to find his daughter near a tavern, but she claims that she and her maid were going to church.  A conspiracy chorus of merchants entices Étienne (this choral tune returns in full mature force at the end of the act). In this first iteration it is not developed enough for a star quite yet.

19: A Harald arrives and announces that Perrin Marc (whoever he is) is about to be executed on orders from Duke Charles, aka le Dauphin, re: le Duc de Clermont. There is a LONG orchestral interlude as the royal cortege passes by *. The merchants swear vengeance (their chorus reaches a more mature form at this point, but I am going to be economical here and postpone the star-giving for a few more minutes). They beg Étienne to take their case to the Dauphin. The Archbishop extracts an oath, followed by Eustache. Marcel then gives a rousing of the troops speech in fiery recitative.

26: Que soit prochaine The act ends with furious chorusing *** as the people storm off to the royal palace.

ACT 2: (42 minutes)

Tableau 1: A gothic chamber in the royal palace.

0: The entr’acte has a single tune (almost like the tick-tock of a Swiss clock but with references to the chorus from the end of the previous act) which is repeated over two minutes *. The courtiers who sit advising the Dauphin are very solemn and it takes a dialogue between Clermont and the Dauphin it at least enliven the situation.

3: Tu ma dit qu′elle est belle The Dauphin gets distracted (thankfully) with what Robert (the squire) has already told him about Beatrix **. This gets interrupted by the arrival of that mob from the end of act one led by Marcel.

9: Duc, notre cause est juste! Although the two Roberts try to avoid a confrontation, the Dauphin demands that public audience will be given and the doors of the chamber are opened to the protestors, although incidentally they come calling for the execution of Clermont so they are probably of no immediate threat to the Dauphin at all. Marcel makes the formal petition as spokesman **. The petition is denied by the Dauphin, but the crowd takes matters into their own hands and Clermont is murdered by the populace, falling at the feet of the Dauphin, who begrudgingly accepts the loyalty of the mob (and their little blue/red caps) in exchange for immunity regarding the, well, murder of Clermont.

Tableau 2: The home of Marcel.

14, 19: Va mon épée A brief intermezzo * flows into a domestic scene in which Marguerite (the wife of Marcel), Beatrix, and servant Denis anticipate the late return of Étienne, who informs them of what has…transpired. He feels very, very guilty and decides to either kill himself or desert the city and his family **.

23: O beaux rêves évanouis Beatrix contemplates how all her happiness has vanished ***. It has a relatively low tessitura, climaxing on a mild high A-flat.

32, 38: Interroge les astres d′or/ A notre amour le ciel pardonne Robert (the squire, not the dead one) shows up: the love duet is mild and even a bit sedate, if at times pretty *. He begs her to flee with him, claiming that the Dauphin is about to set his army against her father. Eventually she gives in to what is perhaps the best passage in the score ***. Although this is the end of the second act in this performance, it is not in fact the end of the second act. There is a brief scene that follows in which the forces of the Dauphin storm the house, Marcel discovers the lovers, and Robert jumps from the window, Beatrix believing him to be dead.

ACT 3: The Night of St. John, before Notre Dame. (22 minutes)

0: Nous ne craignons pas les batailles The people of Paris are not afraid to come out and celebrate the feast * in a starchy chorus, but most of the festivities are cut short as both the ballet and a ballad about being in love by Eustace have been cut. Instead we cut immediately to a dialogue (mostly a monologue) between Maillard and Eustace in which the former talks about all the people who could take the city. They decided that between the English and the King of Navarre, they will choose Navarre (more Swiss clock). The bells of Notre Dame go off full swing.

NOTE: I got around to listening to the piano transcription of the ballet by Debussy: It is in seven movements: The intro is rather standard if bright, the Entrée des Ecoliers * will perhaps be recognizable. The Musette Guerriere is rather calm placidity, the Pavane has more of a pulse to it; the Valse is rather all over the place if attractive. By far the longest of the movements is the bewitching Entrée des Bohemiens *, before the ballets ends with an Allegro *. These last two seem more Meyerbeerian than the others, with the last giving the impression that Saint-Saens had heard La Gioconda. 

6: Voici les échevins A regal procession of the Prevosts of the City ***.

10: Robert! Beatrix and Robert talk to each other why the chorus prays **. Eustace finds them, Beatrix flees, her father arrives and Eustace tells him that the Dauphin plans to have him executed.

14: O peuple de Paris Marcel takes this opportunity to incite rebellion among the people *.

16: Arretez! Maillard comes out of the shadows where he has been lurking, and incites the people against Marcel himself ***! Beatrix comes in on a high B-flat (this is repeated with Robert) and we get one of the few full on ensembles by Saint-Saens. The recording ends the act here, although there are around 30 more pages including a royal cortege (orchestral). The people leave, and Marcel is left alone for a time in recitative. Eustace returns and the two men conspire to ally with the king of Navarre and open the Bastille in order to build an army against the Dauphin. The act ends with a repeat of the chorus at the start of the act. Why exactly this was cut I do not know. Oh wait, they decided to attach it to act four!

ACT 4: Le Bastille Saint Denis. (34 minutes)

0: The entr’acte *.  Marcel and Eustace arrive. Their conversation is LONG and Saint-Saens ends up directly quoting the prelude to Cinq-Mars. Parts of the scene cut from act three are included here.

10, 14, 20: Non! Non? A very interesting patch of orchestral music (Verdiana at its finest) *. Then there is a transposition in the score: a monologue for Maillard which is supposed to be the first scene of act four occurs now. A little march tune pops in gently *. Eustace returns and sings a meandering song based on this march tune and continues long after he leaves. Robert is supposed to come on now and should have a romance here about Beatrix but it is cut. Marcel meets up with the sentry instead and the soldiers refuse to ally with him *.

22: Mon père! The finale starts when Beatrix and Marguerite arrive and an underlining gallop dominates for around two minutes. Then there is one incredibly brilliant concept which first appears with the vocal line for Robert which gets fleshed out in a brief quartet ***. It sounds really good, actually better than almost anything else in the opera and it comes out of nowhere, but it feels like something Verdi wrote. The jump to the high-C from Beatrix does not quite succeed as it should. The rest of the opera goes downhill from there: The prisoners come on like drones calling Marcel! Marcel! The bells ring, something weird happens as a gong of all things sounds, Beatrix dividing her screams between Marcel (who is killed by Maillard) and Robert (whom she begs to help save her father). Maillard comes on declaring that Marcel has been killed for the vengeance of the People of Paris. There is a long silent pause, don’t worry, the show isn’t over quite yet. The opera ends with a grand march as Charles arrives (which sounds terribly like the love theme from Hunyadi Laszlo), the plot, apart from the death of the title character, being totally unresolved.


Étienne Marcel is problematic. Although it does have some great musical moments, its libretto is extremely weak and some of the musical episodes can go on for far too long. The first scene of act second feels about three times as long as it actually is (it is in fact very brief). The fourth act has a lot of added exposition which makes it drag, but this is partially because entire passages of the third act have been inserted into it by the conductor for a reason known only to him. The plot is almost non-existent: otherwise the amount of cutting and rearranging in this performance would be impossible. The love story is tacked on (possibly to disguise the lack of complexity in the story) and provides nothing but musical spectacle, without it the opera would simply be out a soprano and some fine music, because dramatically it contributes nothing. The finale is shockingly anti-climactic. Although I like it slightly more than Ascanio this has more to do with the musical quality than the story (the former has a much better plot). Unlike in the later opera, the recitative does not limp about here, the musical units have more muscle to them, and the very best parts of this score are better than anything in Ascanio, there is more musical cohesion and far fewer instances of me thinking Saint-Saens was on autopilot, or going the way of Cagnoni in Re Lear, as was the case with around a quarter of the score of Ascanio; at the very least there is far more of a pulse here. I don’t know, a gamma for the plot and a B+/A- for the score, so maybe a B/B-? Perhaps it would be ranked higher if I could have heard the opera without cuts (except maybe the ballet, I could take or leave that) because I actually enjoyed listening to most of this even if the plot is very, very, weak.

3 responses to “Camille Saint-Saens: Étienne Marcel (1879)”

  1. You shouldn’t ridicule unsungcompoers like that they do a tireless and selfless job of promoting unsung music which would other wise be forgotten. Granted not all the music featured are masterpieces but some appear to be repertory worthy and well worth a listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First: I want to hear your opera about Theodora, the demon-possessed whore empress.

    Second: Your preamble is, unfortunately, right. As an opera composer, Saint-Saens had several problems: poor judgement of libretti [*]; little dramatic sense; uneven inspiration. I’ve heard most of them (and half-saw Le timbre d’argent in Paris – half-saw, because my seat only gave me a partial view!); Henry VIII is great, Ascanio and Samson good, the rest meh. Still, he has his admirers:

    [*] His first opera, La princesse jaune, is about a Dutch opium addict who hallucinates Japan, and fantasises over a painting. Beautiful overture, though.

    I heard Etienne Marcel two years ago, when I toyed with the idea of writing a survey for MusicWeb International. Don’t remember much about it, but my notes say:

    • Act I sc. IV finale – Really powerful – the people, the church, the aldermen hail Marcel as their leader against the Dauphin; he rallies them (‘Aux armes!’) – and ‘Que soit prochaine L’heure où la chaîne Se brisera’ (thundering)
    • Act II.2 scène ii (trio) is cut
    • Act II.2 scène iv – ‘O beaux rêves évanouis’ – beautiful
    • Scène v – the love duet – p. 161 – at once ardent and tender (although not on the same level as the Samson duet). Several pages (halfway down pp. 175 to the end of p. 182) are cut – scene where armed bourgeois surround Marcel’s house, Béatrix persuades Robert to flee, Marcel confronts them – summons the armed bourgeois – ‘A mort le traître!’ – Robert leaps out the window
    • Cuts between p. 187 and 227 (Eustache’s aria; the ballet)
    • Act III – a massive frozen ensemble (impressive, but recording suffers from sound distortion)
    • Cuts from p. 284 to 309 – : a large chunk of the scene where Eustache suggests opening the gates of Paris to the King of Navarre’s army is cut (the duet). Scene 9 cut.
    • Act IV sc 2 – cut (Robert waiting for Béatrix)
    • Act IV sc 4 – reprise of quartet (pp 347–50) cut

    (So we see eye to eye on two, maybe three, of the best numbers!)

    Les barbares is bizarre. It opens with a long, rather dull, symphonic poem. The first two acts fail to grip; there are really no arias or detachable numbers; it’s largely declamation. And Act III is rather good, with some impressive choruses, and a sudden violent ending.


    1. I would love to review Les barbares (and actually every Saint-Saens I can get my ears to), but I don’t want to invest in the $30+ recording from Bru Zane. If it went down to $20 I would probably get it.

      I wrote up La princesse jaune as part of a double bill review with Phryne, haven’t finished Phryne yet. I actually liked PJ!

      And I thought I did a good job with annotating the cuts for Etienne Marcel! Your notes are great!

      Also, my opera isn’t about a demon-possessed whore empress. Theodora falls in love with a Jewish man who is killed during the Nika Riots. It is total historical fiction. I might share a recording of the prelude that I made a while ago.


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