Hélène and Nuit persane

01/08/2008
Christopher Fifield
MusicWeb International (UK)

Saint-Saëns was outraged by La belle Hélène, Offenbach’s spoof on the Helen of Troy story when it appeared in 1864. However it took forty years before he could purge the wrong and produce his own take on the tale. He wrote this one-act opera for the new Monte Carlo opera. It opened in 1904, and its director Raoul Gunsburg engaged the world’s finest singers including Melba for the title role.

There are four characters, the two doomed lovers, Hélène and Pâris, Venus who encourages Hélène to go with her feelings, leave her husband Menelaus and run off with Pâris. Finally there’s Pallas Athene, who warns the pair of the dire consequences which will be unleashed if they do elope, not least a decade of bloody war and Pâris’ own death. These warnings are reminiscent of Wagner’s Die Walküre when Brünnhilde decides to protect Siegmund in battle after Fricka has tried to intervene and warn him to keep his hands off his sister. In this case Pallas Athene is more of an Erda figure – also a contralto – with her conjured visions presaging the downfall of Troy. The lovers are not to be dissuaded and we see them off on a blissful journey, leaving the outcome to our imagination or reading Homer’s epic tale.

Saint-Saëns produces passionate music for this erotic tale... The most beautiful moments are for the chorus of female nymphs and the eerie offstage chorus of Trojan citizens slaughtered in Pallas’s vision. Inevitably when it comes to the pair of lovers one is reminded of Saint-Saëns’ one operatic success, Samson et Delilah (1876). Indeed the music is strong, dramatic and thrilling, especially as sung by Rosamund Illing. The role is taxing and covers a full range of both tessitura and dynamics. Illing more than matches the considerable demands and scales the heights with consummate ease. Hers is a most impressive performance, and puts one in mind of what Melba’s voice must have been like. Steve Davislim brings a French timbre to his role of the impassioned lover... Both goddesses acquit themselves well according to their respective motives... The chorus is fine, so too the orchestra, with some finely taken solos...

Nuit Persane is another example of Saint-Saëns’ love for the Middle East and North Africa – he was forever wintering in Algiers. It is a dramatic cantata fashioned from an earlier (1870) song cycle Mélodies persanes, settings of six poems by Armand Renaud. In that work the composer had prefaced it with the following description, ‘Renaud’s work evokes a particular vision of eastern life as glimpsed through a dream in the form of a fatal succession of passionate feelings; desire, love, grief, the fury of war, world-weariness with omnipotence, ending in a mystical madness and oblivion’. Two extra poems by Renaud were added, as well as a narrative over linking music, something which Saint-Saëns would have known from his ancestral compatriots Félicien David’s 1844 ode symphony Le Désert and Berlioz’s Lélio, the sequel to the Symphonie fantastique. There is some lovely music here, in which the tenor Steve Davislim sings 'Au cimitière' beautifully... There is fine horn playing in 'Les cygnes' and at the start of the third Prélude – each of the four sections begins with an orchestral Prélude…

It is all highly enjoyable… with conductor Guillaume Tourniaire fully committed to his task... this is a fine addition to the Saint-Saëns oeuvre, a well-represented composer when it comes to assessing the quantity of his recorded works, except perhaps opera. Well, here’s another, albeit brief one to be going on with.