Camille Saint-Saens: Les Barbares (1901)

Tragedie-lyrique en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute.

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Here it is, the opera that divided Parisian critics in 1901! An exercise in cold, chromatic indifference, Les Barbares is an opera some hate, few love, and most would prefer to forget.

SETTING: The City of Orange in Roman Gaul (modern southern France), first century B.C.E. The first act is set in the amphitheatre of Orange during a battle. The women of the city flee to Floria (soprano), the keeper of the sacred flame of Vesta. News is brought that Euryale, the husband of Livie (contralto) has been killed in battle. Livie swears vengeance upon his killer, the Germanic warlord Marcomir (tenor), who invades the amphitheatre with his forces, but upon seeing Floria and the sacred flame he orders his men to retreat. Meanwhile Scaurus (bass) the Roman commander of the city, attempts to revive the battle against the German invaders, is captured by the German second Hildibrath (baritone), and is only spared death when Floria begs Marcomir to have mercy, something the barbarian grants out of his obvious love for her. Floria eventually gives in to Marcomir sexually but Livie is bent on vengeance….

It took me four years to finally get a copy of the 2015 Bru Zane recording of this opera. I wonder if I should have waited so long. It isn’t available in any other way, including MP3 or on YouTube, Apple Music, or even Amazon Music. If you really want to hear it, you have to buy one of the limited number of copies from Bru Zane, mine is #429. The first minute of each track is available on Amazon.de.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (39 minutes)

0: The opera starts deep in the bowels of the earth with a massive eighteen-minute long Symphonic Introduction ***. The first melody is a chromatic rising chord from first the bassoons and then the strings. It is very eery and immediately striking. Climax, the strings scamper about in terror while the horns blast before three bangs from the timpani and the slow retraction. Three minutes in a narrator comes on and reveals the scenario: a Germanic invasion, a virgin priestess who saves the city by falling in love. After four minutes of a repeat of much of the earlier music and much angst from the orchestral, the music turns far more tranquil although with a tinge of sadness to it. Military trumpets break in, horns, and the music turns more military, before returning to tranquility, holiness, and sadness, then a return of the urgent military tune as a rousing climax, then . Although there is no obvious structure or plan to the music (there are not obvious leitmotifs like say in the overture to Tannhauser), and it holds up the action of the opera for well over a quarter of an hour, it is nevertheless a very beautiful composition.

Scene: The Amphitheatre of Orange.

18, 22: Dieux des Romains/Soeur de Minerve et de Mithra The opening choral scene ** The women of Orange come on mid-battle into the amphitheatre which is doubling as a temple to Vesta. The fact of the off-stage battle is projected terrifyingly by the subtlety and understating of the orchestra. The town watchman is not convinced as Floria is that the Teutonic invaders will stop upon seeing the Sacred Fire of Vesta (she rationalizes this from the fact that they too worship fire). She leads the women in an a cappella prayer **. Livie is worried about her husband and gets updated by the Watchman until he sees Euryale fall. The scene is understated, ironically bringing out the terror on stage.

27: Fuyez! Scaurus arrives with the recently killed Euryale **. Livie falls upon the body of her husband and swears vengeance (although Scaurus himself does not know who killed him). Floria tries to gin up morale among the women as the Watchman warns that the Teutons are invading the amphitheatre.

31: La mort, le sang, le feu! Hildibrath arrives with the warriors and orders that the city be burnt to the ground ***. Cymbals crash, gongs, this is sheer terror!

33: Guerriers, je vous livre ces femmes Marcomir arrives like some sort of evil Lohengrin and tells the men to do what they want with the women (rape, kill, he doesn’t seem to care) ***. Suddenly there is a flare in the Flame of Vesta and he immediately believes that Thor has caused it to happen. He then sees Floria and asks her who she is, she responds, the fire flames up two more times. The Germans want to execute the women, but Marcomir denies them and orders them out. The act ends with him gazing at Floria, and she returns his gaze.

ACT 2: The same, from a different angle. (36 minutes)

0: The prelude is furious and barbaric **.

3, 6: Tout dort dans la nuit lourde/Venus qui peut briser  Livie is bent on vengeance * and can not sleep (the other women and children of the city sleep around her). Floria is awakened by her cries and the widow asks the virgin why she does not serve Venus instead of Vesta. Floria tells her that were she to worship Venus, even in secret, the sacred fire would go out and the city would be sacked by the Germans **.

8: Un bruit de pas… Scaurus is found alive *, Livie goes on swearing revenge as he goes through a plot to retake the city. He hides when Hildibarth arrives looking for him. Scaurus is about to hand himself over to the Germans when Floria screams for Marcomir , who frees him in spite of the bloody demands of his Teutonic warriors.

20: Reste! Rassure-toi, prêtresse auguste! Most of the rest of the act consists of a long duet *** for Marcomir and Floria. He at first addresses her as if she were a goddess, but when she reveals that she is but the priestess of Vesta, he starts to try to force himself upon her. The Barbarians are heard off stage and Marcomir orders that any of his men who have made themselves drunk are to be executed by dawn. He declares that he loves Floria, and that she should pity him. The Sacred Flame goes out as Floria gives in to him. Marcomir tells her that if she is disowned by Vesta she shall serve Freya. She falls into his arms.

ACT 3: A crossroads at a damaged gate of the city walls. (45 minutes)

0: The entr’acte * is obviously trying to depict the dawn and is okay but rather too cheery in comparison to the rest of the scenario so far.

2: Sonnez l′appel de vos cohortes! The Romans greet the news of the impending departure of the Germans with surprise but joy **.

9: The ballet ** is in four parts (three of which are actually dances, the second is a brief chorus for the inhabitants). It has some quotes from the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila if you look closely.

20: Les presages sont heureux The dancing continues as a sacrifice is performed off-stage **.

24: C‘est Floria! Floria arrives **, the vestals comment on how well she looks and she reveals the cause of her joy: she is no longer a virgin! Seriously, no pun, she has married Marcomir. This angers the populace. Scaurus defends her and turns the tide of wrath from her claiming that she has submitted only to save the city. Livie is amazed that she would sacrifice herself for all of them for a marriage without love. But Floria declares that she has married Marcomir out of love.

31: Voici Marcomir Marcomir returns on horseback to claim Floria **. The people acclaim , but Floria stops because of Livie (who is about to collect the ashes of her husband), wishing to show respect for the fallen Roman. Floria also offers for Livie to go with her to live with the Germans.

37: O noble époux The finale ***, Livie again makes her vow to avenge her dead husband. As the procession comes on Marcomir realizes that it was he who killed Euryale. Floria realizes that she has to separate Livie from her husband or she will kill him. When Floria calls off Livie leaving with them the older woman becomes suspicious. Scaurus tells her to just leave the situation but Livie persists and makes an accusation that the killer stabbed her husband in the back. Marcomir says that was a lie, he stabbed him through the heart and Livie stabs him. Floria screams in horror trying to have Livie apprehended as Scaurus orders the city on its knees knowing they will all be killed.

COMMENTS:

Everyone who was actually anybody condemned this opera in 1901 including Claude Debussy (who thought it and Saint-Saens were archaic relics of a long dead era, possibly because the two seemed to be at war with each other) and Rimsky-Korsakov (who thought the opera was just the definition of the word bad). The first production failed with the public, but it did receive positive press from the critics nevertheless. The score is chromatic, although not overtly so, but this might be off-putting to some (or most people)albeit the traces of Wagner are very obvious (the quotations from The Ring couldn’t fool the deaf). This is a new Saint-Saens, one who uses simple chromatic structures to garner a haunting and even demonic effect from his orchestra. The score is notably Teutonic and highly romantic. The plot is austere but taut with a rather classical vibe to it. The only filler is the ballet, the only character who even changes their minds on anything is Floria, and the only one I can claim is musically boring is Livie to some extent (her demands for vengeance don’t seem to have inspired Saint-Saens much). Frankly I think this is a very good opera, although it may not have a universal appeal. At least I don’t feel like I wasted my $30.

I would have much rather have heard this first than Ascanio. 

An alpha.

 

3 thoughts on “Camille Saint-Saens: Les Barbares (1901)

  1. You evidently enjoyed Les barbares more than I. Plenty of two and three stars.

    The better pieces, I thought:
    Act III – chorus of celebration that the Barbarians have left, & hymn of praise to Apollo is excellent (if churchy). Much better than the first two acts – some impressive choruses. Fully half the act, though, is chorus / ballet.
    Act III – Livie’s funeral peroration: ‘O noble époux Qu’a trahi la fortune contraire’ – and the solemn theme of the cortège funèbre (melody used in the Prologue). Ends powerfully.

    Bru Zane releases its 2019/20 season in four hours. (Let there be Halévy!)

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    1. I thought the first act was brilliant actually. The second was very good with some lulls from Livie. The third started to grate on me (like you said, half of it is ballet), but the finale picked it up. I get having the ballet because the opera is very short (barely over 2 hours), and anything less than that would be too short.

      What I found most attractive was the dark, Teutonic, austere effect Saint-Saens got from the orchestra. It made the whole situation feel like a French mini-Ring; I particularly found Marcomir fascinating for some reason: combination of Heldentenor and tenor lyrique. The vocal lines are all clear, and although the plot is very simple, there isn’t too much filler. The 18-minute long overture is obviously meant to mimic (or surpass?) Wagner, although each structure is smaller and none dominate like a Wagnerian leitmotif.

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