Saint-Saëns - Le Timbre d'argent

Opéra Comique, Paris, Sunday June 11 2017

Conductor: François-Xavier Roth. Production: Guillaume Vincent. Sets: James Brandily. Video: Baptiste Klein. Costumes: Fanny Brouste. Lighting: Kelig Le Bars. Choreography: Herman Diephuis. Magic: Benoît Dattez. Circé/ Fiammetta, danseuse: Raphaëlle Delaunay. Conrad: Edgaras Montvidas. Hélène: Hélène Guilmette. Spiridion: Tassis Christoyannis. Bénédict:Yu Shao. Rosa: Jodie Devos. Accentus choir. Les Siècles orchestra.

The Opéra Comique has opened again and seems set to pursue its policy of scheduling welcome rarities. To me, Saint-Saëns is a very sound composer, so I've long wished we could get to know more of his operas. I was pleased get a shot at Le Timbre d'argent. As it's a very rare piece, here's the plot, as summarised (drastically) on Wikipedia:

Conrad, an artist, has an unhealthy obsession for gold, and is further engrossed by his own painting of Circe, embodied in the living world by Fiametta, a ballerina. Conrad is given a silver bell by Dr Spiridion: when he strikes the bell he will receive all the gold he craves for, but at the cost of someone’s death. The opera concludes with the realization that all of the events have only occurred within Conrad's own fevered mind.

To say the scenario is somewhere between a dog’s breakfast and what Americans call a hot mess would be unkind. But for contemporary punters, something is wrong with it. One problem, for modern miscreants, is that, like a news channel managing candidates’ air time during an election (France was voting as I sat and watched), it gives the goody-goodies and God as much coverage as the wicked. As we all know, though, hell is more fun than heaven and the Devil has the best tunes. Instead of focusing on fire and brimstone and eye-popping and bodice-ripping dramatic devilries, it serves up more droopy 19th-century piety (recalling Gounod’s Mireille), and butterflies transformed into stars (no, I’m not making that up), than we need. Another difficulty is that one of the key characters, the enigmatic, ambiguous Circé/Fiammetta, is a mute, danced part, not a singer like everybody else.

The production wasn’t strong enough to help. It looked low-budget, as well it might be at the Comique: “À Bergerac, peut-être…” said my neighbour, meaning that it might at a pinch have scored a hit in the distant provinces. The costumes were the now-customary mid-20th century vague, though Conrad had a long, Werther-ish redingote. The sets combined a lot of tinsel curtains, ruched mauve satin and (small) chandeliers with dancing girls in red or green lame and mirror-mosaic balls shooting stars (those ex-butterflies) around the theatre. It looked like a tacky disco – in Bergerac, maybe – not a place to gamble away hundreds of thousands of ducats and Italian palaces. The presence of a magician in the cast list raised hopes of spectacular effects that turned out to be corny tricks: a dove out of a hanky, a dissolving cane… A row of Roman candles was a bit of a damp squib. Act three's projected forest was like a low-cost echo of the lavish woodland sets of the Bastille's recent Snegurochka. The staging was more effective when less visible, as when a video of clouds rolled by while the darkened stage was wreathed in smoke. The directing wasn’t forceful enough, either, to get the chorus to look convincingly debauched or integrate Fiammetta properly into the action: she looked like a visiting ballerina with a stagily gracious ballerina smile.

The oddness of the libretto didn’t, however, stop the solid craftsman Saint-Saëns composing some beautiful (if necessarily diverse) numbers, starting with a very lively and characteristic overture hinting fleetingly at the Danse Macabre. François-Xavier Roth's orchestra, playing with gut strings I imagine, hence the warm but softer sound, and without vibrato, made some very intriguing noises (I remember surprisingly astringent cello chords at one stage) and restored a different balance between strings and wind sections from what we are used to. The gentler volume never obscured the singing.

The cast was mostly young and promising. Tassis Christoyannis was more music-hall than Mephistophelean. He must have felt quite avuncular in his youthful surroundings. Jodie Devos's voice is small and sweet and still very young. Hélène Guilmette's is fruitier and more mature. The fact she's currently pregnant added an unintended twist to the plot. Yu Shao is a very decent-sounding lyric tenor of the "Aura amorosa" kind, with good diction, still a bit raw and unruly - but still young, too.

Most intriguing of all was Edgaras Montvidas. He mastered the demanding role from beginning to end - it's long, after all - without any noticeable struggle. His dark timbre was a good contrast with Yu Shao. Above all, he has a voice that resonated well around what is after all not a small theatre. That is a particularly promising point. It's easy to imagine him as Werther - which is just as well, as he already sings it - or Don José; more so, to me, than as Edgardo or Alfredo. He is tall and slim and good-looking. He just needed a bit more help from the director in projecting personality into the house: the character may be a brooding one, but should have charisma. In this case, I'm afraid my neighbour, who agreed enthusiastically about the voice, brought out his old gag about "all the charisma of a mollusc." But that can be fixed.

(This was in fact the second time he struck me. He was in Capriccio in Brussels in November: "Edgaras Montvidas and Lauri Vasar were welcome discoveries, both 'all perfect in their parts' (as the ladies say to a castrato in Signor Velluti and the Female Choristers, a saucy old print), dramatically and vocally, Montvidas especially.")


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