Tragédie lyrique in a prologue and 3 acts. Camille Saint-Saëns. First perfomed at the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier) on 23 october 1901.
A century before our era, Barbarians from the Baltic shores of Northern Europe are invading the Roman world. Spreading destruction and terror, the Cimbri and the Teutons are overrunning southern Gaul. The city of Orange [then called Arausio] is under siege and the Roman army, led by the two consuls Scaurus and Euryale, is desperately resisting. Floria, the priestess of Vesta, has gathered the population in the theatre, around an altar on which the sacred fire is burning.
In the Roman theatre of Orange at the time of the Cimbrian invasion. Vestal virgins, women and children, are gathered in groups around the altar of Vesta to pray. In the centre, above the other priestesses and the crowd, leaning against the altar itself, anxiously watching the sacred fire and occasionally stirring it with her gold kindling-sticks, is Floria, the chief vestal or vestalis maxima.
Floria, the other vestals and the women and children pray for victory, while a watchman keeps them informed of the battle that is going on outside the city walls. The consul Euryale is killed; the other consul, Scaurus, brings in his bleeding corpse. Livia, grief-stricken, swears to avenge her husband’s death. The Barbarians, under Hildibrath, invade the city, bent on massacring its inhabitants. Suddenly, at a gesture from Floria, the flame on the altar of Vesta flares up; the Barbarians shrink back, for they worship fire, their god is Thor. Their leader, Marcomir, is impressed by Floria’s power and subjugated by her beauty. He orders his men to leave.
Within the Roman theatre, but seen now from a different angle, with the empty tiers and part of the vast stone hemicycle visible at the back. Twilight.
The last glimmers of day cast blood-red light onto the stage; some parts are already in darkness. Livie, grieving, swears that she will avenge her husband’s death. Observing Floria’s influence over Marcomir, she attributes their safety not to Vesta, but to the intervention of the goddess of love, Venus. The consul Scaurus enters, wounded; he has come to help them flee. Floria and Livie refuse. Scaurus is seized by Hildibrath’s men, who are about to kill him, when Floria intervenes to save him. Having set the consul free, Marcomir claims his reward from Floria. To save the city and the lives of its inhabitants, she must marry him. If she refuses she will be the cause of the ensuing death and destruction. Floria, alarmed, finally agrees. Following Marcomir’s orders, Hildibrath calms the Barbarians’ fury. Marcomir promises to evacuate the city at daybreak. Floria is troubled by his kindness and delicacy. She feels gratitude, then love for the conqueror, and in the end she decides of her own free will to follow him.
A crossroads in the upper part of the city, before a gate in the damaged city wall. Signs of assault and fire. In the distance, the plain, with the river winding through it, its banks visible. Houses. Walls. The temple of Vesta. A large tree. Morning. The sun is rising.
The Barbarians leave the city, with their plunder, but without damaging the dwellings of the inhabitants. Scaurus organises sacrifices and festal games and dances, and the people, on learning that they owe their safety to Floria, show her their gratitude. It is arranged for Floria to go into exile with Marcomir. All the vestals wish to accompany her, but she will take only Livie, who is still anxious to find the slayer of her husband. During the funeral of Euryale, Floria discovers that Marcomir dealt the blow that killed him. She resolves to keep Livia away from Marcomir, lest she discover the truth, and suddenly she refuses point-blank to take her with them. This arouses Livia’s suspicion and she resorts to a stratagem: she accuses Marcomir of having treacherously pretended to surrender to Euryale, before stabbing him in the back. ‘You lie! It was in the heart!’ cries the angry and unsuspecting Marcomir. ‘To the heart then!’ cries Livia, as she deals the fatal blow.
CD-Book Camille Saint-Saëns. Les Barbares (2014). French libretto; English translation by Mary Pardoe.
Victorien SARDOU Pierre-Barthélemy GHEUSI
publication date : 22/12/23