Camille Saint-Saens: Proserpine (1887)

Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

My Saint-Saens reviews have proven very popular this month. Unfortunately not all thirteen operas have been recorded (or are unavailable), but I have decided to finish off the month with the ones I can do.

This review is of the 2016 studio recording from Bru Zane of the 1899 2nd revised version of this opera. It is generally considered that the worst act is the first, which is, however, the longest.


SETTING: Renaissance Florence. Proserpine (soprano) is a high-class courtesan who is in love with the aristo Sabbatino (tenor), but true love is denied her because of her social position, so she has to fringe disinterest in him. Renzo (baritone) the brother of Sabbatino′s  virginal fiancée Angiola (soprano) tells him to sow some wild oats before the wedding with Proserpine. This leads to disaster, kidnapping, attempted double-murder and a successful suicide for Proserpine. However, the opera is dramatically imbalanced and almost nothing apart from character set up occurs prior to the third act.


ACT 1: The gardens of the palace of Proserpine, a night-party in progress. (34 minutes)

5: Voyez-les tous The short angst filled but wandering prelude goes directly into an amusing party scene as the second tenor Filippo harasses the other male guests, in particular Ercole and Orlando, with questions about who their master is and who is both infernal and divine? The answer to all these questions, and more, is our title character of course, who comes on briefly rather sadly searching for Sabbatino (who appears to be the reason she hosted the party in the first place). The first thing that resembles a number is a duet for Orlando and Ercole which has a quasi-renaissance tinge to it *. Proserpine comes on again looking for the absent Sabbatino. But low and behold, he shows up at this moment with his soon to be brother-in-law Renzo who for some reason is really into Sabbatino getting his lustful thoughts about Proserpine out of his system before marrying his sister.

11: Pourquoi me demandez Sabbatino expresses his misgivings about a rendezvous with Proserpine *. She finds them finally and refuses any hand but that of Sabbatino for a slow and rather quiet pavane. Eventually she asks to be left alone.

17: Proserpine! The heart of the act is an eight minute long duet for Sabbatino and Proserpine *. At first she rebukes him because she really wants to be let alone. At its best, this duet has a Mozart-ish quality to it, although it tends to sprawl. He makes a pass, she rebuffs him for multiple reasons and he leaves cursing her. Alone, her servant Gil acquaints her with a bandit named Squarocca and they plot to kidnap Sabbatino.

29: Proserpine nous délaisse! The act finale *. Proserpine learns that Sabbatino has a fiancée and decides that she will have Squarocca kidnap the girl instead. The last minute or so of partying is rousing.

ACT 2: The interior of a cloister. (22 minutes).

0: The act opens with a beautiful symphonic prelude ** which floats with the grace of a gondola on water into an Ave Maria. 

4: Un cavalier à la moustache noire Angiola is prepared for her wedding by a group of young girls and women who sing a gorgeous fugal canon ***. The cavalier is Renzo, who greets his sister.

11: Comment dire bien ce que je veux dire? Sabatino expresses his love for Angiola and asks that they be married at once **.

15: Allez, o vous que j′aime! Angiola consents and the three express their happiness in a charming little trio **.

18: Approchez et prenez In the act finale *** we discover amid choral prayers and chanting that Squarocca has disguised himself as a monk, has invaded the convent, and has gained the confidence of Angiola. The one dramatic thing you think will happen: the kidnapping of Angiola by Squarocca, occurs between acts.

ACT 3: A bandit encampment in the mountains. (21 minutes).

0: Saint-Saens starts the act with an attractive tarantella * even though the dance is Neapolitan (or Calabrian) and we are supposed to be in Tuscany.

1: Qui va là! Squarocca arrives and is greeted by a rather intelligently constructed male chorus **.

4: Approchez, ma beauté Squarocca reveals that he has fallen into (at least) lust with Angiola to Proserpine **.

7: Pourquoi suis-je venue… Proserpine, alone again, reflects on the situation which a sudden burst of passion from the orchestra ***. Squarocca returns and asks if, when he brings Angiola, Proserpine wants to be left alone with her.

11: Là! Chantons maintenant la chanson des ivrognes Squarocca sings a scenic, if mild, drinking song *.

17: Le ciel dit anathème The Proserpine-Angiola interview ** starts off as a palm reading but quickly turns into furious mutual reprisals between the two women, who are eventually separated by Squarocca.

ACT 4: The house of Sabbatino. (19 minutes).

0: A long entr’acte ** elongates what is ultimately the shortest act in the opera.

5: Puis-je croire que c’est bien vrai Sabbatino reflects on the fact that Angiola is to be returned to him *. Proserpine arrives and Sabbatino really does not wish to speak with her but she begs him to listen. A reprehensible violin appears, and although the situation is not ornery (in fact leitmotifs from earlier in the opera swarm about), I don’t think it deserves a star either. Eventually it turns to a gallop, but this idea disappears quickly.

13: Vos menaces, madame! Musically gentility returns with Angiola and she and Sabbatino get some lover music as Proserpine despairs that her love is lost forever **. Although the musical ideas never consummate with each other, they are all pleasant for once. In the last two minutes (which is the play-out) Proserpine tries to pull a dagger on Angiola but is restrained by Sabbatino, who curses her. Renzo arrives just at this moment and after saying she does not want to destroy their wedding, she stabs herself. The opera ends with a brief exchange between the two women in which a touching mutual understanding is revealed as Proserpine dies.


I was pleasantly surprised by this opera. I had thought it would be dreadfully dull musically, but once one gets out of the first act, it really flies! The last three acts are rather too short to be considered intermission worthy and the inclusion of orchestral passages between them implies that the work should be given as a two act work with the intermission between either acts one and two or two and three. The first act is rather boring in an Ascanio sort of way, but almost the entirety of the rest of the opera is actually very good.

The plot is, admittedly, a bit ridiculous and cliched. I kept thinking of Kassya, Fosca, Dejanice, and La Gioconda, but I am sure there are other operas that share story elements with this livret, including ones already on this blog that just don’t happen to be on my mind at the moment. But the music in the two middle acts makes up for this, somewhat.


2 responses to “Camille Saint-Saens: Proserpine (1887)”

  1. My reaction:
    Easy to see why critics were puzzled. In the first act, there’s really no traditional ‘opera’ number until the (rather conventional) Act I finale. Vocal line often isn’t interesting. The melody lies in the orchestra more than in the voice. Like a play set to music – drame lyrique. So, too, are Massenet’s; few of Massenet’s operas are ‘number’ operas, but they do have set pieces. The first act lacks them.
    Quite a short opera – 4 acts, lasting only about an hour and a half. Saint-Saëns thought each act had its own character.
    Act II – counterpoint nuns’ chorus; trio (rather insipid, like watered-down Gounod) – but the finale (entrance of pilgrims) is fine (encored)
    Act III – Proserpine’s aria – lacks effect, despite thunder and lightning; reminds one too much of Dalila’s aria in Act II (waiting for Samson). Squaracca’s drunkard’s song – picturesque accompaniment more interesting than the melody. Scene where Proserpine confronts Angiola could be effective on-stage – but more because of the drama than because of the music (which is weak); comes close to spoken theatre (syllable on one note). The Bru Zane recording is based on the libretto; lacks scene vii.
    Act IV – entr’acte – good!
    Music often seems conventional or uninspired. As Berlioz said: Saint-Saëns lacked everything but inexperience. Competently written – but nothing stands out.
    Doesn’t help that the plot is uninteresting & feeble. Saint-Saëns himself thought the work was good, & defended it; Massenet thought Bacchus was one of his best. (And Massenet would have made a better job of a love triangle involving a courtesan, a religious girl, and a young man.)
    Courtesan (a universal courtesan) in love with a young man; at the end, she either stabs herself (in this recording) or he stabs her.
    Proserpine and Sabatino only have scenes in first and last acts. Proserpine is rather flat – she’s not a Dalila, a Cathérine or an Anne (from Henry VIII). The tenor himself is a stick figure – he presses his suit on Proserpine in Act I, and then steadfastly refuses her for the rest of the opera. (No temptation; no wandering thoughts…)


    1. I agree with your assessment of Proserpine.


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