Saint-Saëns: Les barbares

Our rating 
3.5 out of 5 star rating 3.5

COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Ediciones Singulares
WORKS: Les barbares
PERFORMER: Catherine Hunold, Julia Gertseva, Edgaras Montvidas, Jean Teitgen, Shawn Mathey, Philippe Rouillon, Tigran Guiragosyan, Laurent Pouliaude, Ghezlane Hanzazi; Choeur Lyrique et Orchestre Symphonique Saint-Étienne Loire/Laurent Campellone


In the year after its 1901 premiere, Les barbares received no fewer than 27 performances at the Paris Opéra, so it was certainly no flop. But it’s never graced a French stage again and this is the work’s first recording. I surmise unkindly that, since Camille Saint-Saëns together with Jules Massenet stood at the head of the French musical Establishment at the time, the director of the Opéra would have had to make a strong case for refusing to stage it in the first place. In the event, the critical response (of which examples are given in the beautifully produced booklet) was mixed. Debussy, speaking through his alter ego Monsieur Croche, felt that from Saint-Saëns something better was expected, and I’m bound to agree.

The orchestra plays well and soprano Catherine Hunold as Floria, the chief vestal, sings with intelligence and radiant tone. I understand that a dramatic distinction has to be made between her and the vengeful Livia, sung by Russian mezzo Julia Gertseva, but I find the price of the latter’s strong vibrato too high, while tenor Edgaras Montvidas as the barbarian leader Marcomir largely ignores the composer’s frequent piano and pianissimo markings, and the edge to his voice becomes rather wearing.

Sadly, this opera never leaves the ground, even the ballet numbers in Act III being surprisingly charmless. There are no big tunes and barely any small ones, and Saint-Saëns failed to imbue his almost continuous arioso with the life and character we find in that of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered six months later. As for the 15-minute orchestral conclusion to the Prologue, its purpose defeats me entirely.


Roger Nichols