Forty years is a lengthy gap between perceived affront and aggrieved riposte. A classicist and a Classicist, as composer and man of letters alike, Camille Saint-Saëns decried La Belle Hélène’s insouciant 1864 success as ‘The collapse of good taste’. His rebuttal, Hélène, an hour-long poème lyrique to his own first libretto, did not premiere until 1904, when he was 68. It was commissioned for Melba, and its deluxe presentation by her namesake company includes a photograph of her in cod-Greek costume. At 43 she had neither the figure nor the face to launch suspension of disbelief: her voice did the conquering.
Unseen Spartans and Pâris briefly laud Ménélas, and Hélène’s white arms. Atop a seaside cliff at daybreak, Hélène rhapsodises on her destructive desire for Pâris, and vows to thwart infidelity by drowning herself. Materialising with nymphs hymning ‘volupté’, Vénus intervenes: fate requires submission to love! She departs amid delightful melismas as Pâris arrives to beguile the Queen until she cries, ‘I believe I love!’ Underscored by ominous woodwinds, Pallas appears and reveals their passion’s consequence: a vision of burning Troy. Undeterred, they renounce renunciation: ‘for love, life is short’. ‘Go to your love!’, Pallas mourns. ‘Go to your death!’ They ringingly sing down the night while their souls entwine and soar aloft. Destiny uses Eros to work its will.
After initial success, this rehabilitation effort vanished—partly because Classical subject matter had been overworked, mainly because Saint-Saëns provides no action save Hélène’s struggle towards surrender. What can singers do onstage meanwhile? Forsaking arias, Hélène becomes a prolonged tone poem with sinuous vocal lines continually unfurling against subtly-coloured instrumentation, an aesthetic indebted to Saint-Saëns’s long-repudiated Wagner.
This recording’s resonance abets a seasoned cast robust with conviction. While the soprano Leanne Kenneally incarnates Vénus’s eternal freshness, the mezzo Zan McKendree-Wright’s mature vibrato imbues Pallas’s pronouncements with gravitas. Steve Davislim’s comely tenor ensures that Pâris will melt Hélène’s defences with masculine lyricism. Rosamund Illing… matches Davislim ardour for ardour in their dedication duet, foretelling the union of Strauss’s Ariadne and Bacchus. Off they sail to Asia and immortal infamy while Guillaume Tourniaire, who has maintained the musical tension throughout, steers the Orchestra Victoria to triumph. The CD booklet’s copious intelligent essays appraise the work highly; but the theatre of the imagination seems the best venue for Hélène’s genuine…charms. Nuit persane (1891) orchestrates Saint-Saëns’s 1870 cycle for tenor and piano Mélodies persanes, elaborated by the original poet, Armand Renaud. Garnished with contralto, narrator (Amanda Mouellic) and chorus, this sumptuous half-hour of French hothouse decadence will leave the susceptible swooning. This release reveals how sensuous a Symbolist this committed Classicist could be.