235. Ascanio (Saint-Saëns)

  • Opéra in 5 acts and 6 tableaux
  • Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Libretto: Louis Gallet, after Paul Meurice’s play Benvenuto Cellini (1852) [after Alexandre Dumas’s novel Ascanio (1843)]
  • First performed: Académie Nationale de Musique, Paris, 21st March 1890, conducted by Augusto Vianesi
  • First complete performance: Geneva, 24 and 26 November 2017, conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire.

BENVENUTO-CELLINIBaritoneJean-Louis Lassalle
ASCANIOTenorÉmile Cossira
FRANÇOIS IerBassPol Plançon
A beggarBaritoneJean Martapoura
CHARLES-QUINTBassEugène Bataille
LA DUCHESSE D’ÉTAMPESSoprano dramatiqueAda Adiny
SCOZZONEContralto-MezzoRosa Bosman
Dame PèrineMime 
Workmen, apprentices, students of Benvenuto;
Lords and ladies of the court of François I;
Guards, commoners

SETTING: Paris, 1539

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A Renaissance tragicomedy based on Alexandre Dumas, praised by Gounod and Reynaldo Hahn, and slammed by Shaw, Ascanio is one of Saint-Saëns’s rarest works – and one of his best. Richness and variety of incident; superb characterisation; picturesque and dramatic scenes; a well-crafted, beautiful score; and an ending that is at once happy and tragic make this a very worthy candidate for revival.

“People constantly talk to me about Ascanio and how much they enjoyed seeing it, or reading it,” Saint-Saëns said. “It is a work which will quietly make its way underground, like Samson [et Dalila (1877)], and will one day triumphantly come out of its preparatory incubation.”

The protagonist is the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, also the protagonist of Berlioz’s eponymous 1838 opera. Saint-Saëns’s version is based on Paul Meurice’s play Benvenuto Cellini (1852), in turn based on the 1843 novel Ascanio Meurice co-wrote with Dumas. (The title was changed to avoid confusion.)

The plot is a colourful tapestry woven from Benvenuto’s paternal love for his pupil Ascanio, Ascanio’s love for the demure Colombe, Benvenuto’s vision of her as an ideal beauty, the fierce jealousy of Benvenuto’s mistress Scozzone, the cruelty of the Duchesse d’Étampes, and Benvenuto’s standing as an artist. The play of loves and emotions, Saint-Saëns believed, made it “a complete study of the human heart”.

The opera takes place in 1539, seven years after Berlioz’s opera. Benvenuto is now the favourite artist of François I, while his pupil, Ascanio, is pursued by the king’s mistress, the Duchesse d’Étampes (Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly) – whose lovers tend to end up dead. Ascanio loves Colombe d’Estourville, daughter of the provost of Paris. So does Benvenuto. The Duchesse does not take kindly to having a rival; nor does Benvenuto’s mistress Jeanne, the hot-tempered model “Scozzone” (“Daredevil”).

Colombe is to be married against her will to the Vicomte d’Orbec; Cellini devises a cunning escape: she will hide in a reliquary, and be taken to a convent, where her godmother is waiting. Cellini will sculpt a golden statue of Jupiter for the king, who will be so impressed he will grant the artist’s request that Colombe marry Ascanio.

But the Duchesse and Scozzone have learnt about the ruse, and will go one better: they will intercept the reliquary, and take it to the Duchesse’s palace. And there the Duchesse will leave Colombe trapped in the box until she suffocates… In the final scene, Cellini presents his finished statue to the delighted king, and Colombe leaves her convent to marry Ascanio. “If Colombe is alive, then who is dead?” demands the Duchesse. Cellini opens the reliquary, and is horrified to discover Scozzone’s corpse. She has sacrificed herself to save Colombe. The great artist falls to his knees, weeping; his glory does not matter now Scozzone is dead.

Ascanio was performed 35 times in 1890–91, staged in the provinces (Toulouse, 1897; Rouen, 1898; Bordeaux, 1911), and resurrected for seven more performances in 1921, a month before the composer’s death – but it was not heard as he intended until B Records’ 2018 recording.

During the rehearsals, Saint-Saëns was out of Paris, so could not supervise rehearsals. (After his mother died, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and set out on a six months’ tour, travelling under a false name, occasionally being mistaken for a spy.)

In his absence, the part of Scozzone was altered from a contralto to a mezzo. “This change spoiled the rôle, removed its character, and was detrimental to the work’s overall structure,” Saint-Saëns complained.

The librettist Louis Gallet, the musician Ernest Guiraud, and the Opéra management made 20 substantial cuts – including removing the scene where the Duchesse learns that Ascanio loves Colombe, not her. Those cuts, Guillaume Tournaire argues, made the libretto incomprehensible. Victor Wilder (Gil Blas) thought that Saint-Saëns would not have allowed the cuts that Gallet and Guiraud imposed: “Besides depriving us of a few amusing or dramatic pages of great value, they make the progress of the story awkward and cloudy, sometimes even quite obscure”. Pierre Véron (Charivari) also found the drama hard to follow, while Le Temps complained that Saint-Saëns’s talent and the care with which he followed the words only made the faults of a bad opera text more noticeable.

The dress rehearsal went poorly – “a veritable disaster,” H. Moreno (Le Ménestrel) said. “Everything interesting in the score passed almost unnoticed, and the cleverest hadn’t noticed much. … That’s because in Ascanio, there aren’t any great flights of fancy that grab you right away, and one has to come back twice to discover its charming intimacies.” Everyone predicted a disaster, Arthur Pougin (Dictionnaire des opéras) observed.

But the first night went well: five pieces were encored. That brilliant success, Pougin wrote, was due to further rearrangements, cuts, and arrangements that made the work presentable by making the good parts stand out better. Le Ménestrel, however, complained that most of the singers, the mise en scène, the costumes, and the décors were not up to scratch.

Critical opinion was divided over the value of the score itself. Gounod praised the work unreservedly. “This is one more noble and beautiful work in the already glorious baggage of its illustrious author. Clarity in richness, calm in verve, wisdom in fantasy, self-control even at the heart of the most thrilling emotions, this is what makes M. Saint-Saëns a first-rate musician.” (p. 14) “In Ascanio, as in M. Saint-Saëns’s other works, we find the artist who does not forget or sacrifice his art, even for a moment; everywhere and always, the great musician is present, and, everywhere also, the drama appears to him like a law, never like a yoke. Passions, characters, situations, everything is felt, everything is served with an equal certainty of discernment either by the song, or by the declamation, or by the simple recitative, or by the dramatic role that he has his orchestra play, and all this in a musically irreproachable language and form, to the point of having been able to build real and solid pieces of music even where the librettist did not provide the fixed contexture.” (p. 4)

George Bernard Shaw’s sour judgement is too often quoted: “I need not waste my words on the music of it. There is not an original phrase in it from beginning to end.” But Shaw’s musical criticism is eccentric. He was that all-too familiar creature: the perfect Wagnerite who does not like opera (particularly not French historical opera).

Ascanio, like other French operas of the late 19th century, is French grand opéra (a historical work in five acts) written in response to Wagner’s music dramas. Hervé Lacombe (“L’émergence du wagnérisme dans l’opéra français”) describes the style of the period thus:

Vocal writing (based on an arioso close to speech or a continuous declamation) and the inscription of the singing in a symphonic writing which includes it instead of simply accompanying it; the creation of a form in perpetually becoming, modelled on the movement of the drama and no longer inscribed in stereotyped schemas; orchestration merging timbres; harmonic richness; fluid modulations; the use of dissonances; chromatism and the broadening of tonality…

“L’émergence du wagnérisme dans l’opéra français”, Histoire de l’opéra français II: Du Consulat aux débuts de la IIIe République, ed. Hervé Lacombe, Paris: Fayard, 2020,p. 521

Steven Huebner (French Opéra at the Fin de Siècle, 1999) argues that Saint-Saëns “aimed to achieve musical and dramatic continuity across operatic acts, as well as a marriage between developmental techniques and number opera with voice-dominated cantabile phrases”.

Saint-Saëns had been an advocate of Wagner’s music – he attended the first performance of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876 – but he was frustrated with the idolatrous worship of Wagner, wagnéromanie. “It seemed to him,” Huebner writes, “that a hegemony of Wagnerian taste had developed in France that would choke pride in its indigenous musical tradition and, in turn, undermine its musical development” (p. 199). He and Gallet envisaged a series of operas based on French history (beginning with Étienne Marcel, 1879) as a retort to encroaching Wagnerism – but Saint-Saëns, like many of his contemporaries, had adopted a quasi-Wagnerian, through-composed style, without formal “numbers”, in which melodies arise organically out of the text. “All my operas have been written using the same method, which broadly consists of using Wagnerian techniques that are easily integrated into my disposition, whilst retaining, in many aspects, my outlook and, above all, my own style, in as much as is possible,” Saint-Saëns explained. He even adopted the Leitmotif system: Charles Malherbe published a concordance to Ascanio, identifying “motifs conducteurs” associated with characters (Benvenuto, Ascanio, Scozzone, the Duchesse, d’Estourville, Colombe), places (the Studio, Nesle), objects (the Letter, Jupiter), abstractions (Beauty, Crime), and “motifs rappelés” (Anvils, Hébé, François I, the Duchesse’s Impatience, Charles V, Betrothal, the Ursulines, the Hunt, Scozzone’s Distress, Ascanio’s Sadness) – just like The Ring or Parsifal (1882). Again, the wise old master craftsman who gives up a woman he loves to his young apprentice reminds some listeners of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862).

For some, Ascanio’s uneasy compromise between grand opéra and Wagner was awkward. Thus, Wilder considered it Saint-Saëns’s “œuvre capitale” in the theatre, but an old-fashioned work; it was not modern musical drama, or to be precise, symphonic drama, of which Wagner was the paragon, but opera skilfully rejuvenated by the wave of an enchanter’s wand: “Opera trying to emancipate itself from the tyranny of the singer and smiling at the symphony, without abandoning itself to its embrace; opera letting the harmonious waves of the orchestra, with its typical motifs and suggestive waves, filter through the interstices of the recitative and the cracks of the cantilena.” That was a shame, Wilder thought, because Saint-Saëns the symphonist was, in his view, better able than anyone to achieve the renewal of French opera.

Similarly, Ernest Reyer (Journal des débats), himself the composer of a better version of the Siegfried legend than Wagner’s (Sigurd, 1884), wrote: “While making extensive use of Wagnerian procedures, it was impossible to write a less Wagnerian work than this.” Saint-Saëns had adopted the common currency of the Wagnerian system: “Pieces which follow one another without interruption, but pieces which have a determined character, which are indeed cavatinas, duets, and ariettas that are easy to detach and which can be deleted if necessary without harming the march of the dramatic action in the least; reminders of phrases already heard and reappearing except in the accompaniment each time the events of the play, the entry on the scene of a new character, can require or motivate it…” But the recitatives, melodic phrases, episodes, arias, and cavatinas were elementarily simple and slightly outdated. As a result, Reyer thought, Saint-Saëns’s new score lacked unity in the general conception of the work, elevation, and homogeneity.

Others were struck by Saint-Saëns’s well-crafted score, even if they were not convinced of its dramatic merits. It was, Moreno said, “the work of a sincere artist, chiselled in the manner of Benvenuto himself”. Reyer did not believe that (apart from his symphonies) Saint-Saëns had written a score with a richer, more elaborate harmony, while countersubjects and artifices of counterpoint were employed with a certainty of hand, a prodigality, hardly found in contemporary dramatic works except those of Wagner. Gounod considered that the richness and the constant interest of the instrumentation spread over the whole work an incomparable prestige and an indispensable garnish to the dramatic expression. Moreno, however, felt that while the score was interesting in its details, the large setting of the Opéra was in no way suited to its charming intimacies. More damningly, Pierre Véron (Le Charivari) found the music unclear, and thought Ascanio would add nothing to Saint-Saëns’s renown. “He remains what he was: an intimate musician who does not have the momentum and the spirit for the theatre.”

M’colleague Phil also has a low opinion of Ascanio: his annoyance with the recitatives in the first scene made him feel that Saint-Saëns had written the score on autopilot. But it is worth considering Moreno’s advice to listen to the work twice: “Take, for example, the first tableau, which is one of the finest and most accomplished in the score. It does not overflow with melody, although it is very distinguished when it wants to show the tip of its nose, but follow the little musical discourse of the orchestra, and you will always be delighted.”

That first scene takes place in Cellini’s studio in Paris. There are some lovely melodies: Ascanio’s brief, rapt description of the woman he loves (“Si loin et si haut dans l’espace”); Benvenuto’s quasi-duet with Scozzone (“De l’idéal vers qui mon rêve pur me guide”); or the king’s praise for Benvenuto’s statue of Jupiter (“Voilà le pur chef d’œuvre, ami”), or his orders to the artist to devise festivities at Fontainebleau for the visit of Charles V. (Gounod considered the scene of the king’s visit a model of musical elegance and courtesy.) Note, too, the woodwinds and harps that accompany the king’s entrance – it evokes the Renaissance.

Act I, tableau 1: Maquette de décor – H. Lafargue. Source: Gallica (Biblothèque nationale de France).

So, too, do the prelude and spirited students’ chorus (“Quand nous serons devenus”) at the start of Tableau 2. It is set in the square outside the cloister of the Augustins, near the two Nesle mansions, one of which the king has promised Benvenuto may use as a workshop.

Act I, tableau 2: Maquette de décor – H. Lafargue. Source: Gallica (Biblothèque nationale de France).

The whole scene is splendid, full of colour and movement. It features Ascanio and Colombe’s lovely trio with the beggar – Gounod thought it a little masterpiece of candour and style, surrounding the three figures with a veritable halo of compassion; the mocking, almost opéra comique chorus of the outraged provost d’Estourville, insulted that his Nesle mansion must be lent to a mere artist (“Ah! la plaisante audace!”); and Cellini’s dramatic confrontation with the Duchesse and his defiance of her threats. Act I ends with Ascanio’s mock-heraldic challenge to the provost (as if to a besieged city), and the artists’ storming of the Nesle.

Act I, tableau 2: Drawing by Parys. (Source: Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France.)

Act II finds Cellini established in a studio in the Grand Nesle mansion; from this vantage point, he can see the terraces and gardens of Petit Nesle. Ascanio has a fine cavatina, “A l’ombre des noires tours”, but the undoubted highlight is the scene (“Ah! le destin va-t-il réaliser mon rêve”) where Benvenuto sculpts his Hébé, watching Colombe through the window. The tone is at first contemplative, a lovely winding phrase passing through the instruments – Colombe appears, and sings a charming a cappella aria (“Mon cœur est sous la pierre”) – and ends with Benvenuto’s ardent invocation of Colombe as a goddess (“Brûle-moi, flamme de génie”). “This piece is admirable,” Gounod declared. “The eloquence of enthusiasm, the passion of the artist, this luminous fever which seizes him when he has met his ideal, all this is felt and rendered with a rare beauty of form and colour. The instrumentation is warm, by turns caressing and powerful; and the last movement gloriously crowns this masterly period.” The act ends on a crisis: Scozzone is jealous, and has quarrelled with Benvenuto; Ascanio has learnt that Benvenuto is in love with Colombe; Colombe is to marry the Vicomte d’Orbec in less than a week; and the king has banished Benvenuto from his presence. So Benvenuto vows he will go to Charles V, who has offered him work.

Act II: Stage design.

Act III takes place at the Louvre. A lovely, archaic prelude (flutes, clarinets, horns, strings) is in the mood of the 16th century. So does the King’s “Adieu, beauté, ma mie”, which becomes a courtly duet with the Duchesse. Gounod considered that poet and musician were worthy imitators of Ronsard. There is a very grand, magnificent march for the King’s exit. The scene ends with a dramatic trio: the Duchesse has discovered Colombe and Ascanio’s love, and vows revenge.

The act’s second tableau, set in the box hedge gardens of Fontainebleau, is largely occupied with a mythological ballet, depicting the Olympian gods, the dragon guarding the golden apples of the Hesperides, Cupid and Psyché, and the presentation of the apple to the Duchesse. Much of it is based on 16th century melodies. “Bacchus” is exciting, while “Apollo and the Muses” are grave and beautiful. L’Amour, though, is pure Gounod! Gounod himself considered the dance music a model of form, colour, and instrumentation.

Act IV returns to Benvenuto’s workshop in the Grand Nesle. The Duchesse and Scozzone lay their plot to murder Colombe in the reliquary, but Scozzone repents, and helps Colombe to escape. The act contains a superb quartet which critics thought equalled that in Saint-Saëns’s Tudor opera, Henry VIII (1883); Benvenuto’s “Enfants, je ne vous en veux pas” (YouTube: sung by the creator) reminds us of Hans Sachs. Scozzone’s exit phrase, “Va sans regrets, va, misérable”, is striking; Gounod thought it “heartbreaking as a farewell to happiness and life”. The act ends with the forging of the statue and a splendid, Berliozian chorus, “Gloire à Jupiter triumphant!” – Benvenuto, strong and wise, is himself like Jupiter.

Acte IV, scène V: Illustration by Paul Destez, L’Univers illustré (Source: Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Act V takes place in the Louvre at night; the Duchesse has the reliquary with its ghastly contents. There is a superb ensemble praising Benvenuto’s art (“Dans sa splendeur impérissable”) – but the act ends with the discovery of Scozzone in the reliquary and Ascanio’s despair.

In his summary of the work in the Dictionnaire des opéras, Arthur Pougin stated that Ascanio was a second-rate work. “It cannot be counted among the best productions of the author of Samson et Dalila, Henry VIII, and so many symphonic works which reveal a genius that is at once so flexible, so masculine, and so powerful. Above all, what can be said of her, and what may surprise you on the part of an artist like M. Saint-Saëns, is that she essentially lacks personality.”

But decades later, Reynaldo Hahn called Ascanio “truly marvellous, similar in character, colour and ornamentation to an artwork of the Renaissance. It offers an incomparable model of lyric declamation, so just the accents, so completely is the psychology perfectly traced.” He conducted the opera’s performances in 1921, the last before a century-long silence fell over Ascanio.

Far too long for such a dramatic, melodic work to slumber unperformed. This is a great opera.


Listen to: Jean-François Lapointe (Benvenuto Cellini), Bernard Richter, Ève-Maud Hubeaux, Jean Teitegn, Karina Gauvin, and Clémence Tilquin, with the Chœur et Orchestre de la Haute École de Musique de Genève and Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire, Geneva, 2017; B-Records, 2018.


Works consulted

  1. Pierre Véron, Le Charivari, 23 March 1890
  2. Victor Wilder, Gil Blas, 23rd March 1890
  3. Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 23 March 1890
  4. Le Temps, 24 March 1890
  5. Ernest Reyer, Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 30 March 1890
  6. H. Moreno, Le Ménestrel, 30 March 1890
  7. Charles Gounod, Ascanio de Saint-Saëns, Paris : Durand et Schœnewerk, 1890; first published in La France, 23 March 1890
  8. Charles Malherbe, Notice sur Ascanio: Opéra de Camille Saint-Saëns, Paris: Librairie Fischbacher, 1890
  9. Arthur Pougin, supplement to Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1903 (www.artlyriquefr.fr)
  10. Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style, Oxford University Press, 1999
  11. Brian Rees, Camille Saint-Saëns: A Life, London: Faber & Faber, 1999
  12. George Schürch, “Prelude”, B-Records, 2018
  13. Guillaume Tourniaire, “Ascanio”, B-Records, 2018
  14. Marie-Gabrielle Soret, “An Eagerly-Awaited First Performance”, B-Records, 2018
  15. Quentin Gailhac, “Debates…”, B Records, 2018

One thought on “235. Ascanio (Saint-Saëns)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.