Proserpine is neither Classical nor a classic. She isn’t the queen of Hades but a 16th-century Italian courtesan who falls in love with the wrong man, tries to kill his fiancée, and stabs herself when he rejects her. Parisian audiences didn’t take her to their hearts. She appeared before them for a mere ten performances in 1887, briefly surfaced 12 years later, and then sank without trace until the Palazzetto Bru Zane, dedicated to the rediscovery of French Romantic opera, brought her back.
Bru Zane’s standards are, as usual, impeccable. Ulf Schirmer’s conducting is lucid and elegant, and the recording stars the soprano Véronique Gens in the title role. I recently heard her sing Halévy’s Reine de Chypre in Paris, and was struck, as I am here, by her warm voice and insight into character.
Proserpine itself isn’t easy to warm to on first or even second listening, but it’s interesting to hear a French composer grappling with Wagner. The melody lies in the orchestra – the vocal line is largely heightened recit, bar some exquisite ensembles in Act II. Contemporary audiences found the “advanced” composition difficult to grasp, but the orchestration, to a modern ear, sounds more like Gounod than Wagner or his followers, including Saint-Saëns’s rival Massenet, though Massenet might have made a better job of a love triangle involving a courtesan, a religious girl, and an idealistic young man. The story fails to grip, partly because Proserpine and Sabatino, the tenor role, only share scenes in the first and last acts – and he prefers the convent-educated Angiola.
Frédéric Antoun and Marie-Adeline Henry do what they can with these rather thankless roles; Antoun gives an ardent performance as Sabatino, and Henry brings her sweet tones to the ingénue role. Baritone Andrew Foster-Williams makes an impressive brigand chief, one of those partly comic villains the French loved. Proserpine may not be as dramatic as Samson or Henry VIII, but it is, nevertheless, a welcome addition to the growing catalogue of neglected Saint-Saëns operas.