Of Camille Saint-Saëns the opera lover knows Samson et Dalila, even though the piece is often decried and not performed so frequently as once it was. Some operaphiles may have heard of Henry VIII and that’s about all. Yet Saint-Saëns is the composer of 12 operas of which several merit revival. Such is the case with Hélène, created in 1904 at Monte Carlo, with Nellie Melba in the title role. The work is of the highest quality. Antiquity suits Saint-Saëns; his taste for form and a pure line is well deployed here and one senses the composer is very inspired by the subject. His music is completely fluid, handling transitions with consummate art. He has a remarkable facility to set French prosody. In the theatre Hélène probably wouldn’t go the distance: the plot is too slight. But a recording allows one to taste and savour the musical pleasures, whether it be the ecstatic duet between Pâris and Hélène, the venomous injunctions of Vénus or the gripping prediction of the fall of Troy by Pallas, thanks to the judicious use of the bass clarinet.
The young French conductor Guillaume Tourniaire is the project manager of this world premiere recording, and his total mastery is surprising from an artist almost unknown up until now. He takes the piece in both arms and communicates his enthusiasm to an astoundingly assured and cohesive Orchestra Victoria . The singers, supported by this attentive conducting, give the best of themselves. Steve Davislim uses a marvel of dramatic means without ever giving the impression of forcing, all the while keeping his foot 'on the pedal'. It is difficult to resist the bewitching Vénus of Leanne Kenneally , while Zan McKendree-Wright takes evident pleasure in portraying the bearer of ill omen with her sombre and opulent voice … The superb Nuit Persane from 1891, is a clever filler, completing a release that all lovers of French music should have in their collection.