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Saint-Saëns: Ascanio

Jean-François Lapointe, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Karina Gauvin, Clémence Tilquin; Choeur et Orchestre de la Haute Ecole de Musique de Genève; Choeur du Grand Théâtre de Genève/Guillaume Tourniaire (B Records)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0
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Saint-Saëns Ascanio
Jean-François Lapointe, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Karina Gauvin, Clémence Tilquin; Choeur et Orchestre de la Haute Ecole de Musique de Genève; Choeur du Grand Théâtre de Genève/Guillaume Tourniaire
B Records LBM 013   190:00 mins (3 discs)

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This is a magnificent curiosity – a late five-act French Grand Opera heard as its composer intended for the very first time in this recording. Saint-Saëns wrote his version of Benvenuto Cellini in less than 12 months and the ballet was completed in 1889 the following year. Ascanio was tailored for the Paris Opéra, but overwhelmed by the death of his mother the composer left before rehearsals were completed and the work was cut down to the management’s preferred size.

It would be good to report that this is a lost masterpiece. It’s not, but it is a carefully crafted late version of the form that Meyerbeer had invented for Paris. So there’s a central role for the chorus, every opportunity for theatrical spectacle and a ballet. All of which adorns a historical story with the Italian Renaissance sculptor in Paris at the court of Francis I with his assistant Ascanio, both of whom are in love with the same woman. There’s a villainous Duchess, the King’s mistress and Cellini’s self-sacrificing lover Scozzone. Competent to a fault, Saint-Saëns gives his principal singers every opportunity to shine, and they rise to his challenge in this concert performance conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire. Jean-François Lapointe is a muscular Cellini with the sweeter-toned Ascanio (Bernard Richter) a perfect vocal foil to his master. As the wicked Duchesse d’Étampes, Karina Gauvin is more Disney villain, but Clémence Tilquin’s Colombe, the woman loved by Cellini and Ascanio, sings her heart out, investing some of the composer’s most lyrical music with genuine feeling. Here and throughout is that French vocal style all too rarely heard in opera houses today.

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Christopher Cook