Hélène and Nuit persane

Jacques Hétu
Res Musica (France)

‘Where to flee to escape from Love?’

Homage given to the great opera singer Nellie Melba—by the label carrying her name—is doubled here with a wonderful discovery from the world of French opera. Coming straight from Australia, this other beautiful Hélène is much less of a mockery than her Offenbachian sister. It is very persuasively performed by Leanne Kenneally, Zan McKendree-Wright, Steve Davislim, but above all by Rosamund Illing. The soprano is a great tragedienne—superb from start to finish—from whom we had Amoureuse, another SACD on the same label, devoted exclusively to Massenet.

As Pierre Louÿs wrote in his correspondence, ‘I remain convinced that there is no subject other than beauty and that beauty is made complete with Greek perfection and Oriental grace.’ … 

The Orient has inspired Saint-Saëns better than mythology has done. Is this due to his knowledge of the place—the composer travelled in Algeria in winter every year and Egypt remained a special destination for him—or still more the fantasy shared with other musicians of his generation? One thinks of Djamileh by Georges Bizet when listening to Nuit persane. The latter has a more dramatic story, but with the same arabesque touches that suit the composer of Samson et Dalila so much better.

Nuit persane is a cantata for solo contralto, tenor, chorus and orchestra, a setting of poems by Armand Renaud. The tenor Steve Davislim and the contralto Zan McKendree-Wright form the new central pair.  The narrator Amanda Mouellic also plays a significant role. This cantata comes from Mélodies persanes, a cycle of six songs, written during the upheaval of 1870 and finished in 1872. It was 20 years later in 1891 that Saint-Saëns took the work up again to make a cantata. The single weakness remains in the verses of the poet and friend, Armand Renaud. But Saint-Saëns’ treatment of these texts transforms and even enhances them! The shimmering score is full of innovations. Nuit persane will touch the sensibilities of every music lover. Sustained by the orchestra, Amanda Mouellic as the Voice of the Dream links the different vocal sections with great skill. This tragic vision of love and life is admirably well interpreted by the two singers who are completely involved. The young conductor Guillaume Tourniaire infuses the orchestra with the colours of the Orient without ever falling into the realms of kitsch.