Camille Saint-Saëns composed his one-act poeme lyrique on the commission of Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Monte Carlo Opera, for Dame Nellie Melba, the great Australian soprano—a kind of modern Helen of Troy herself. The Melba recording company is named in her honour. After its Monte Carlo premiere, February 18, 1904, Hélène was soon heard in London, Milan, Frankfurt, and in Paris at both the Opera and the Opera-Comique. But like all of Saint-Saëns’s opera, except Samson et Dalila, it fell into obscurity, not to be revived until now. And a most welcome revival it is!
The composer, fascinated by all things Mediterranean, especially Greek, wrote his own libretto. He chose a Helen-Paris episode rarely set: the two lovers fleeing from Sparta to Troy. He also makes Helen into a more sympathetic character—the victim, as is Paris, of two wrong people falling in love. The opera’s seven brief scenes sing of Helen’s troubled soul. She is consoled by Venus with a simple message of the power of love—and a lovely-sounding bevy of nymphs to sing along. Pallas Athene shows up to warn the lovers of the terrible consequences of their flight, but they take no heed and are seen sailing off into their terrible destiny in Troy.
Saint-Saëns composed music of simplicity, sincerity, delicacy, and a lustrous beauty, with one lovely delight after another. The colourful orchestration is quite arresting. The performance is also delightful. Lustrous is the word for Illing’s soprano as well. She crafts the words with deep meaning and clarity. Davislim floats Paris’s lines with radiant beauty. McKendree-Wright …manages [Pallas’s music] with a sad dignity. Kenneally’s Venus is sung with bright bravura.There is more exoticism—story and music in Nuit persane. Saint-Saëns fashioned this dramatic cantata from an earlier song cycle, Melodies Persanes (1870), a setting of six poems by the poet Armand Renaud. The always peripatetic composer preferred to get away from the pettiness of Paris to compose in solitude, often travelling to North Africa and the Middle East. On the suggestion of the conductor Edouard Colonne, Saint-Saëns orchestrated the song cycle, adding two more Renaud poems and constructing a dramatic form with contralto and tenor soloists and chorus, linked together by spoken narration over the music. The richly decadent atmosphere of Renaud’s poems is mirrored in the richly decadent music of Saint-Saëns. Again, the orchestration is of prime interest.
An exotic tale of life in a world of harems, colourful veils, warm breezes, the desert sun and moon, and fool-hardy love pursued by a powerful potentate brings out the most from the composer’s fecund imagination. Tambourines jangle, cymbals crash, the timpani rolls, and chromaticism abounds—quite effective and lovely. The semi-whispered narration charms and enchants the ear as much as the music. Here McKendree-Wright...dynamically intones her music. The orchestra and chorus in both works are quite splendid. Melba’s program notes (and a libretto for both works in French and English) are filled with intelligent, informative material on the composer, the opera, and the Helen of Troy legend. There’s even a short biography of Dame Nellie. Photos and lithograph prints are included too.