Hélène and Nuit persane

Andrew Quint
The Absolute Sound (US)

Hélène, Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Lyric Poem in One Act,’ was a success at its 1904 premiere in Monte Carlo, but soon disappeared from collective musical memory. The score was rediscovered in 2007 and this recording on the Melba label—Hélène was composed for the legendary Australian soprano Nellie Melba—is its first.

Saint-Saëns took the familiar Greek myth of Helen of Troy and infused it with a Tristan und Isolde sort of erotic urgency. Helen and her Trojan lover Pâris are clearly as unafraid of death as Wagner’s iconic protagonists—their first love duet is triumphant, incandescent. Saint-Saëns’ orchestration throughout is luxuriant. Rosamund Illing ’s Hélène is womanly and heroic; as her warrior-lover, Steve Davislim is suitably ardent. Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire moves things along with real dramatic thrust.

On a second SACD, Melba offers up Nuit Persane, settings of poems for tenor, alto, speaker, chorus, and orchestra that are highly evocative of the Muslim world, a place that the composer was actually familiar with from frequent trips to North Africa and the Middle East. Melba’s 5.1 multichannel program presents the orchestra and voices with immediacy and dimensionality. In surround, Hélène’s many off-stage effects add greatly to the performance’s theatricality.