Christophe Rizoud
Forum Opéra (France)

Among those releases which allow us to appreciate French opera in general and the music of Saint-Saëns in particular, let’s highlight this new recording from the Australian label Melba, to whom we’re already indebted for the only complete recording of Hélène, the lyric poem premiered in Monte Carlo in 1904. Whether speaking of opera or ballet, it is through the latter that Melba continues its exploration of this composer’s theatrical works which – with the acknowledged exception of Samson et Dalila – are all rarities. When was the last time you encountered a production of Henry VIII, Ascanio, Etienne Marcel, or still yet Les Barbares? In lieu of that, here at least are 24 tracks and a little over 70 minutes of ballet music from these four operas. Conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire (whose tasteful conducting has been praised on this site before), this forgotten music is much better than would be suggested by the narrow formulaic reputation that often plagues this composer. Fastidiously crafted as one would expect – sometimes knowingly exploiting pastiche, sometimes charged with exoticism – this unfailingly melodious music seems to be a model of elegance today. Let’s hope that this discovery of the lascivious arabesques of the waltz from Etienne Marcel prompts some opera director to stage this work created in Lyon in 1879. It contains, according to Jacques Bonnaure – the biographer of Saint-Saëns on the Actes Sud imprint – “one of the most beautiful French opera arias ever composed”.