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Why Fredegonde?

Bradley Winterton
Monday,  Oct 9,2017,15:55 (GMT+7)
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Why Fredegonde?

Bradley Winterton

On October 20 and 21 the HCMC Ballet Symphony and Opera Orchestra will stage a production of Fredegonde at the Opera House. What is it, and why are they doing it?

Fredegonde is a rarely seen opera by French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). It’s so rare that there›s only evidence of a single previous production anywhere - eight performances in Paris in December of the year it was completed, 1895.

Saigon is not a major opera center. It has seen six opera productions in recent years – Cavalleria Rusticana, Dido and Aeneas, Die Zauberflote, Carmen, La Vie Parisienne and Die Fledermaus, all of them relatively well-known. Why, then, should it embark on a fully-staged rendition of an almost unknown work for only the second time in that opera’s entire history?

The reason is that Saint-Saens completed work on Fredegonde here in Vietnam. He took a break from life in Paris to travel to what was then known as Indo-China, where a friend of his was governor of the island prison of Con Son. Once here, after some time in Saigon, he went to Con Son and used the peace and quiet to work on Fredegonde.

“The subject is fascinating,” said French conductor Patrick Souillot at a recent rehearsal. “It’s essentially Shakespearean – about power, families, war, impossible love and death. There are interesting differences, too, between the two composers who were involved. Saint-Saens, for example, added some oriental touches such as the use of a large gong, or tam-tam. You can hear oriental touches, too, in the woodwind at the opening of Act Five.”

There are more than a few little-known French operas from the same period, Souillot added. He has just finished work on another, Le Timbre d’Argent (The Silver Bell), also by Saint-Saens, and given it its first ever recording. Fredegonde has so far never been recorded at all.

Of course, with all the soloists having learnt their roles, many things are possible, but, said Souillot at the moment there was no project to stage Fredegonde anywhere else.

The rehearsal had begun with the male members of the chorus singing under conductor Tran Nhat Minh. The female members then joined them, making for a chorus of some 46 in all. When this work was finished, Patrick Souillot took over the podium and began rehearsing with six soloists, all of them French. Fredegonde is being produced in cooperation with La Fabrique Opera, Grenoble. One important Vietnamese soloist is involved, Dao Mac, as a character called Landeric.

The story of Fredegonde concerns dynastic rivalries in France in the sixth century AD, with Fredegonde herself a scheming and malign influence. Further details will be revealed in this column shortly.

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