Proserpine, Drame lyrique in four acts (with French libretto)
Camille Saint-Saëns – Proserpine. Drame lyrique in four acts
(b. Paris, 9. Oct. 1835 – d. Algiers, 16. Dec. 1921)
Libretto by Louis Gallet
First performance: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 16 March 1887
After the success of Henry VIII at the Paris Opéra in 1883, Saint-Saëns’s next opera was written for the Opéra-Comique, where it was no longer necessary to use spoken dialogue and to set mild stories that disturbed no one and ended happily for all. Bizet’s Carmen had broken sharply with that tradition, and so a drama of sexual obsession in four acts could now be performed at the Opéra-Comique.
In about 1880 Saint-Saëns came across a volume of poetry by Auguste Vacquerie, a close friend of Victor Hugo, which contained a verse drama about a sixteenth-century Italian courtesan Proserpine. She was so named because the Greek goddess Proserpina was Queen of the Underworld, living in darkness. Vacquerie agreed to permit Saint-Saëns to develop his drama as an opera, so the librettist Louis Gallet was brought in to write the libretto. This was ready by May 1886.
The two works that Saint-Saëns wrote before embarking on the opera were to become two of his most famous pieces: the big ‘Organ’ Symphony no. 3, composed for the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, and the very different Carnaval des animaux, a ‘zoological fantasy’ for two pianos and small orchestra written for a Shrove Tuesday concert in Paris. Both of these were first performed in 1886, after which Saint-Saëns went directly to Florence where the action of Proserpine is set. The draft was finished in September and the full score completed in January 1887. …
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