Saint-Saëns Festival – Writer’s Cramp & Yellow Princess

La Crampe des Écrivains (Writer’s Cramp)

Francesca Anthony – The Baroness
Nicola Jolley – Fanny
Wendy Somerville – Zénobia
Colin Zammit – Gontran

Translated and directed by Simon Callow

La Princesse Jaune

Elizabeth Anne Claxton – Léna
Ed Lyon – Kornélius
Ed Tolputt – Narrator

Royal Academy of Music Concert Orchestra and Chorus
Dominic Wheeler


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 May, 2004
Venue: David Josefowitz Recital Hall & Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music

As part of Steven Isserlis’s Herculean attempts to raise the music-lover’s awareness of the worth of prolific French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, the focus shifted from the Saint-Saëns Festival’s principal home on Wigmore Street to take over the Royal Academy of Music for a day, culminating in the evening’s pairing of a short sketch penned by the composer and his first performed opera (although not his first composed).

Perhaps appositely set at the Royal Academy, just a stone’s throw from the Planetarium (Saint-Saëns included astronomy among his myriad interests), it was good to explore a little of the non-musical side of the composer. His skit Writer’s Cramp (at 25 minutes it may have been a little exaggerated to call it a ‘play’) – nicely done by Simon Callow’s four young actors with Callow himself by the CD machine to cue in excerpts from the piano concertos as an introduction and epilogue – tells the story of the bohemian writer whose cramp leads to the bringing back together of an estranged couple. Written and first performed in Algiers, where the composer often went like many Frenchmen to indulge his homosexuality, there is a certain sexual frisson in the play in the potential lesbian relationship between the baroness and the exotic writer Zénobia, an allusion referred to at the end of the play and expanded in Warwick Thomson’s programme essay.

Whether the titular cramp was always a ploy by Zénobia to help get the Baroness and Gontran back together or just a coincidence is not really clear: the writer has met a man who she has invited round to the Baroness to enact a rather lurid love scene for a new novel. Because of her cramp the Baroness agrees to write a love letter to the man as part of the scene, but the man (of course) is the Baroness’s estranged husband and he recognises the handwriting. Rather slight, but infectiously done on the tiniest of stages with the chaise-lounge, writing desk and artist’s easel vying for space next to the unused piano, the skit did not outstay its welcome, but was not full-scale farce. Curiously, although costumed throughout in period, the maid’s blue trainers stood out by a mile!

A change of venue upstairs to the Duke’s Hall saw the evening’s second half devoted to a concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s opera The Yellow Princess, which he wrote quickly while waiting for news that his full-length opera, Le Timbre d’argent would get performed. It’s about another pair of estranged lovers, although here Dutchman Kornélius doesn’t yet realise he loves his cousin Léna, as he is too besotted with the painting of the Japanese princess he swoons over in his study. Hampered somewhat by a stilted narration (both in conception and delivery), which replaced the intervening dialogue, it became a little like a suave Gurrelieder with a happy ending, in that the first four numbers alternated between Léna and Kornélius. The final two numbers, however, were shared between both singers with a small chorus of ladies in No 5.

With committed playing in the generous acoustic of Duke’s Hall, Dominic Wheeler marshalled a winning musical performance from the Concert Orchestra with very likeable soloists: Ed Lyon’s keen and clear tenor and Elizabeth Claxton’s voluptuous soprano. The programme included full text and translation and one can only hope that in Saint-Saëns Festival II Royal Academy forces will be able to mount one of his other 14 operas!

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