Composers: Saint-Saëns
Compositions: Ascanio
Performers: Chœur et Orchestre de la Haute École de Musique de Genève/Guillaume Tourniaire
Catalogue Number: B Records LBM013 (3CD)

“I need not waste my words on the music of it. There is not an original phrase in it from beginning to end,” George Bernard Shaw was reported to have said of the premiere of Saint-Säens’ Ascanio in 1890. Poorly received, one suspects this has to do with the mutilated version that made its way to the stage. Producers baulked at the opera’s significant production demands, meaning Saint-Säens never heard the work as he intended. This recording thus represents the first time audiences will hear the complete 1888 autograph manuscript, reconstructed by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, a regular with Opera Australia.

While it’s by no means a lost masterpiece, Ascanio is eminently enjoyable. In five acts, it focuses on the 16th-century Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who has been commissioned by François I to create a sculpture of Jupiter. Both Cellini and his apprentice Ascanio are in love with the same woman, Colombe, which arouses the jealousies of two women – Scozzone, who harbours feelings for Cellini, and the Duchess d’Etampes, who has designs on Ascanio. Cellini nobly steps aside to allow Ascanio to pursue Colombe, but soon realises she is in danger of becoming a victim of the Duchess’ schemes. It all culminates in a principal character suffocating inside a life-size reliquary.

The largely Francophone cast excel themselves, anchored by baritone Jean-François Lapointe’s charismatic performance as Cellini. Though not over lustrous of tone, he brings a gravitas and humanity to the part that’s just right. As Ascanio, Bernard Richter’s honeyed tenor is a consistent delight, matched in beauty by Clémence Tilquin’s Colombe, while Karina Gauvin’s full-bodied soprano and dramatic commitment make her a perfect Duchess. Tourniaire conducts with obvious affection and panache, his orchestra a highly accomplished student ensemble from Geneva’s Haute École de Musique. Definitely worth checking out.