236. Phryné (Saint-Saëns)

  • Opéra-comique in 2 acts
  • Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Libretto: Lucien Augé de Lassus
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique (salle du Châtelet), Paris, 24 May 1893, conducted by Jules Danbé

PHRYNÉ SopranoSibyl Sanderson
LAMPITO, Phryné’s slave SopranoBuhl
DICÉPHILE, archon BassLucien Fugère
NICIAS, his nephew TenorEdmond Clément
AROGAGINE BassJean Périer
CYNALOPEX TenorBarnolt
A herald Lonati

SETTING: Athens, circa 350 BC

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Three years after the grand opéra Ascanio (1890), Saint-Saëns went in the other direction with a frothy little operetta about an Athenian hetaira.

Phryné is Saint-Saëns’s version of Ancient Greek “New Comedy”: an everyday comedy about stern guardians, irresponsible young men, courtesans, and the travails of love. The pompous magistrate Dicéphile has been appointed archon for his moral rectitude – but he has embezzled his nephew Nicias’s inheritance, and wants him incarcerated for debt. Nicias, however, is the lover of the courtesan Phryné, as cunning as she is lovely. She lures the magistrate into a compromising situation – she undresses before him, inflaming his passions, and reveals the nude statue of Aphrodite modelled on her – then threatens to expose his hypocrisy unless he restores Nicias’s money and shares half his goods with him.

The historical Phryne was believed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the model for two statues of Aphrodite, by Apelles and Praxiteles, but was prosecuted for impiety (arguably a ploy to bring down one of her lovers). When brought to trial, Phryne bared her breasts, and the (all-male) jury acquitted her. (Tit for tat, one might say.)

That incident was later painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861) – and when the Opéra-Comique announced Phryné, many hoped they would see the prima donna, the lovely Sibyl Sanderson, in all her glory. But they had to make do with Praxiteles’s statue. “That will certainly disappoint those who hoped to see at the Opéra-Comique the alluring spectacle that was offered to the Areopagus of Athens,” wrote Victorin Joncières (La Liberté). I’ll bet they were suitably tit-illated by “Seinderson’s” wardrobe malfunction when she played an Egyptian courtesan, Massenet’s Thaïs, a year later.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryné devant l’Aréopage, 1861

Lucien Augé de Lassus, an archaeologist, had suggested the work to Saint-Saëns six years before. It was originally in three acts, but Saint-Saëns found the action too thin. Once it had been condensed into two acts, Saint-Saëns set to work, composing the music in Algeria. It was intended for the Théâtre-Lyrique, managed by Léonce Détroyat, the librettist of Henry VIII (1883), but that theatre failed before Phryné was finished. The impresario Léon Carvalho accepted it for the Opéra-Comique.

Phryné was one of Saint-Saëns’s most popular works – performed 120 times in Paris, up to 1950 – and the composer considered it one of his best scores. It is an elegant, amiable little work, but it is very light, and hardly reaches the heights of Samson et Dalila (1877), Henry VIII, or Ascanio.

The pieces that make the most impression are the chorus in Dorian mode, “C’est Phryné”, praising her beauty; the revels of Nicias’s friends, “Que la fête se prepare”, instrumented for Basque tambourine, triangle, and sistrum; Nicias’s catchy motif, “On raconte qu’un archonte”, used for both finales; and the trio to Aphrodite in Act II.

It is as much a musical as it is an opera: the orchestration is clear, simple, and almost transparent – gauzy; the melodies tickle the ear; and the singing is in the French semi-conversational style. It seems, in a word, soft-focused. But that may have been one reason for its appeal.

Phryné premièred a couple of weeks after the first French production of Wagner’s Walküre, and it may have been a relief to turn to this undemanding, unpretentious work after the longueurs of the Ring.

“There is nothing more alien to Wagnerian theories than [Saint-Saëns’s] score of Phryné,” wrote H. Moreno (Le Ménestrel). “The couplet flourishes there in abundance, alongside new romances and dolled-up duets; the choruses shine there, and the ensembles keep their symmetry; moreover, there are two rhythmic finales that would not disgrace the best operettas of the little masters of the day. Finally, it is something in the genre of the worst comic opera of Auber or even Ferdinand Poise, who never perpetrated anything more accomplished.”

Its music, Les Nouveautés said, was clear, gay, easy to grasp, and never vulgar or trivial. That journal praised its freshness, purity, and ease (Les Nouveautés); Joncières admired its grace, lightness, and naturalness. Charles Gounod and Paul Dukas enjoyed it. Arthur Pougin (Dictionnaire des opéras) thought it a charming fantasy that could only have been written by a great artist: a lovely score, where gaiety borders on grace, without renouncing for a moment its beautiful musical qualities: purity of style, piquant harmonies, elegance, and the liveliness of an orchestra always alert, always varied, full of colour, and treated with a master’s hand.



Listen to: Florie Valiquette (Phryné), Cyrille Dubois (Nicias), Thomas Dolié (Dicéphile), with the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Rouen Normandie and the Chœur du Concert Spirituel, composed by Hervé Niquet, Rouen, 2021; Bru Zane, 2022.

Works consulted

  • Pierre Véron, Le Charivari, 26 May 1893
  • H. Moreno, Le Ménestrel, 28 May 1893
  • Victorin Joncières, La Liberté, 29 May 1893
  • Les Nouveautés, 29 May 1893
  • Paul Dukas, La Revue hebdomadaire, 10 June 1893
  • Arthur Pougin, supplement to Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1903 (www.artlyriquefr.fr)
  • Brian Rees, Camille Saint-Saëns: A Life, London: Faber & Faber, 1999
  • Alexandre Dratwicki, “Removing the veils of oblivion”, “Phryné in the press”, Bru Zane, 2022
  • Vincent Giroud, “Saint-Saëns and Antiquity”, Bru Zane, 2022
  • Pierre Série, “An opéra-comique after an easel painting”, Bru Zane, 2022

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 )

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.