Sauguet’s Caprices de Marianne in Rouen

The name Henri Sauguet is less familiar today than it was when I was first listening to French contemporary music in the late 60s and early 70s. And there are good reasons why his opera Les Caprices de Marianne, first performed in 1954, has only rarely found its way to the stage, even in France. Sauguet’s light, lyrical style is so far removed from the dogmas of modernism predominant in that country that it was obviously thought to be anachronistic. I must confess that for much of the performance at the Opéra de Rouen, I retained some doubts about it.Not that the music was too traditional;rather its light lyricism seemed to be insufficiently dramatic and anguished for a piece that culminates in tragedy and disillusion as the hopes of the younger generation for love and freedom are dashed.

That said, it undeniably made for an interesting and attractive operatic experience. The libretto of Jean-Paul Grédy, based on Alfred de Musset’s play, contains wit and irony which the young singers, engaged by the Centre Français de Promotion Lyrique for a tour of the provincial opera houses, relished. Their singing ranged from average to very good (tenor Cyrille Dubois; baritone Philippe-Nicolas Martin), while conductor Gwennolé Rufet and the local Rouen orchestra offered a sympathetic and persuasive account of the score. The production of Oriel Tomas evolved smoothly from commedia del arte to poignant high drama. It was framed by Patricia Ruel’s superb decor evoking, from different angles, the Umberto Galleria in Naples, which symbolically reflected the bourgeois world and its values against which the young protagonists rebel. Not a neglected masterpiece, but well worth the occasional airing.