Camille Saint-Saens Double Bill: Phryne & La princesse jaune (1893/1872)

Now after all these heavy Saint-Saens operas about women suffocating in reliquaries, men falling off towers, Teutonic warriors slain by vengeful Gallic widows, and prosties who will not take no for an answer, lest we forget that he also wrote comic operas!

PHRYNÉ: Opera-Comique en deux actes. Running Time: 51 minutes.


This was a vehicle for the American Coloratura Soprano Sibyl Sanderson (as were Esclarmonde and Thaïs).

SETTING: Ancient Athens, Fourth Century B.C.E. Is this a play on words?: Dicéphile (baritone) and his nephew Nicias (tenor) are both in love with the high-class prosty Phryné (soprano) who prefers the younger man. The two conspire with her servant girl Lampito (soprano) to trick the older man into thinking that a statue of Aphrodite is in fact Phryné when Nicias is about to be arrested and imprisoned for debt.


ACT 1: A public square in Athens. (26.5 minutes)

0: The brief prelude starts off with a whirlwind (a theme that represents our title character) before settling down *.

1: Honneur et Gloire The opening male chorus * sounds a lot like Meyerbeer, specifically Les Patineurs. They praise Dicéphile, whose statue has just been erected in the square, and who is intrigued by a coming cortège. The whirlwind from the prelude returns.

4: C′est Phryné The chorus (now mixed) ** greets Phryné who responds and gives facilitations to Dicéphile

8: Enfant, je te donne l′example Dicéphile and Nicias have a small family reunion which resembles a jolly stroll on a sunny day (watch for the tenor high B-flats) *.

11, 18: Que la fête se prépare!/Si le front couronné After a brief ariette from Nicias, we have the dance of the Lesbians **, but these are no ordinary Lesbians, but rather mixed sopranos and tenors as they are from Lesbos, although they apparently were invaded by the Pirates of Penzance. There is finally some conflict in which Nicias gets in trouble with the law (debt related). He then embarks on a duet with Phryné *, but the Lesbians interrupt them.

22: On raconte qu′un Archonte Another delightful song and dance sequence **, this time for Nicias and Lampito with Phryné occasionally on a descant. Dicéphile comes on and gets confused by them.

ACT 2: The House of Phryné, an alcove hallowing a statue of Venus (24 minutes)

0, 4: Quoi! vous partez sitôt The entr’acte starts off rather holy *. Phryné grants an interview * to Nicias who tells her that he is in terrible straights (very much in debt, prison awaits him). It ends with a lovely gentle section.

6, 10: Un soir j′errais/O Reine de Cythere! After a long patch of tuneful and harp/string accompanied exposition from Phryné (it transitions with a stormy majestic passage *) there is a trio as she, Nicias, and Lampito prep for the deception **.

12: C′est ici qu′habite Phryné Lampito brings in Dicéphile *.

14: L′homme n′est pas sans défauts He is left thinking about how men are morally weak *.

15: Je suis devant l′aréopage The duet and apparition **. The longest part of this nearly eight minute long sequence is a duet between Dicéphile and Phryné. Eventually the apparition occurs to a tenor/contralto chorus to the Phryné theme from the prelude to act one.

23: Salut et Gloire! The opera ends as it began, with a brief series of hits from the evening **.


Phryné is admittedly slight, even by opera-comique standards, but it is amusing. None of the music is dull even if none of it is great. It is just a silly little work that doesn’t take itself too seriously so why should one judge it too harshly? The plot is basically non-existent, it is essentially just two situations, or rather character introductions in the first act and then a single situation in the second act. The best music are the choruses and ensemble numbers. You might even ask why this thing exists other than as a vehicle for Sibyl Sanderson, and you are probably right, but it is still enjoyable. I am rather surprised that more low-budget opera companies haven’t put it on because it doesn’t require too many resources and it is very short for a two-act opera. A beta.

LA PRINCESSE JAUNE: Opera-Comique en un acte et cinq tableaux. Running Time: 44 minutes (music only).


SETTING: Holland in winter, the home of the parents of Léna. Léna (soprano) is in love with her cousin Kornélius, but she learns from going through his things while cleaning up after him that he has a fetish for East Asian women, in particular Japanese women. After she confronts him, he takes opium, has a fantasy about Japan, and then realizes after getting upbraided by his cousin that he is in love with her too.


Scenes 1 & 2: The study.

0: The overture *** is pregnant with orientalist pretensions, and for once with Saint-Saens it has a solid tune! It establishes the pentatonic harmonies which will dominate throughout the score and give the work in total an oriental sound.

6: Outsou Sémisi Kamini The opening aria for Léna is at first entirely dependant upon her, but eventually it turns into a mild Offenbach-ish chanson *. Everything is in disarray, with books, notes, a poem, and Orientalist objet d′art (in particular a painting of a Japanese woman named Ming which he has hanging on the wall) which reveal that her cousin is infatuated with Japanese women (much to her annoyance seeing that she wants to bone him herself and she has just found that he is into East Asians!).

8: J’aime dans son lointain mystère Kornélius comes on after his cousin hides and embarks on the prototype for the tenor arias in Lakmé **. She confronts him about his Japaneserie and he admits to wanting desperately to go to that country. When he refuses to tell her what he has purchased she storms out.

Scene 3: Another room in the house.

12: Je faisais un rêve insensé Léna expresses her exasperation with her cousin **. She is somewhat fed up and wonders if she shouldn’t just give up on her romantic designs on him.

Scenes 4&5: The Study, in scene five a cabinet transforms into a Japanese-interior.

16: Vision dont mon âme éprise Kornélius fixates on the painting of Ming *** and takes the potion he has purchased (it is opium). He then goes into a drugged state.

19: Ah! Quel nuage d’or Léna returns just as her cousin goes into a Japanese-y fantasy including a magicked Japanese-interior and chorus of (apparently invisible) Geishas ***. Kornélius is in pseudo-Japanese heaven and even tries to make love to a beautiful woman he sees (it is actually Léna, who realizes that his sexual overtures are because of his intoxicated state and not out of genuine affection). She runs from the room and he is left dazed for a while to some pentatonic stuff from the flutes. A beautiful seventeen minute block of music.

36: C’est ainsi que ton image She returns cautiously and upbraids him at first for his infatuation with the painting **, reveals her love for him, and he begs her to pardon him and that he loves her for real. She doesn’t believe him at first.

39: Ce doux mot qu’ignorant de moi-même The opera ends with the two reconciling and delighting in their mutual love **.


La princesse jaune is a charming little work with bright orchestration, sensuous music, and it is not entirely dominated by exotic pretensions (which nevertheless entertain). Although somewhat pretentious, the pretension has nothing to do directly with Orientalist stereotypes of East Asian females but rather with the idiotic fetish of a white male who discovers that he is really in love with a white girl. The score is delightfully lush in a Mozartean way even without the Orientalist tunes but these thicken the texture and make it something more than a simple boy realizes he loves girl after taking opium tale. The story is admittedly slight and silly, but the music is rather marvellous, at least to me. An A for Adorable, albeit very much a mini-alpha.

3 responses to “Camille Saint-Saens Double Bill: Phryne & La princesse jaune (1893/1872)”

  1. I don’t remember Phryné (the score didn’t have any of the spoken text), but apparently I enjoyed it.

    “One of Saint-Saëns’s more likeable operas. His Classical tastes – set in ancient Athens; and his musically classical tastes too – duet #2, for instance, with violin accompaniment sounds almost eighteenth century or Mozartean. Which might be why [Pougin?] liked it so much.
    The music is light (sometimes too light – French semi-conversational style)
    Act I finale – Offenbachish, with rhyming couplets and laughter:

    On raconte
    Qu’un archonte
    Était un coquin maudit !

    Son mérite
    Un beau jour se démentit.

    D’un beau masque,
    Sort fantasque,
    Si les dieux lui firent don

    Que le monde
    Le confonde !
    Dicéphile est un fripon !”

    Speaking of the shortsightedness of budget opera companies: why does nobody do Halévy’s Éclair? Only four singers; performed worldwide for decades; praised by everyone (including Berlioz!) as a musical tour de force; and has a wonderful aria:
    Only one (pirate) recording – in German.

    I wondered what you’d make of La princesse jaune. (Would it be too “orientalist”?) I’m glad you like it; the plot is bizarre, but it has one of Saint-Saens’s finest scores. My thoughts here:


    1. I couldn’t find any other recording of Phryne and it upset me a little, but I watched the score like a hawk while listening to the recording (twice!) and it appears to be complete. Halévy’s Éclair would be an interesting review. I have known about it for some time now, it is set in Boston I think and there is a contrast between the two male characters since once is American and the other is British. I am rather surprised, however, that it is a three act opera, with only the four characters as you said (two each soprano and tenor).


    2. The plot of Halévy’s Éclair is rather simple. Henriette is in love with Lionel and lives with her sister the widowed Mme Darbel outside of Boston. The two sisters have a cousin named George who is from England and tells them that all three stand to inherit money from their uncle but only if George marries one of the two sisters. Lionel gets struck by lightening and thinks that Mme. Darbel is in love with him when it is really Henriette, but he gets medical treatment in Boston and realizes that he was wrong so he marries Henriette and her sister marries George. Apart from the lightening bolt thing this is really not even a love quadrangle.


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