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Galakonzert review - Lidové Noviny Daily (Prague)

Friday, 1 February 2008 - 9:30am


Camille Saint-Saëns: Hélène, Nuit Persane

Conductor: Guillaume Tourniaire

State Opera Prague, Premiere (13 February 2008)


Smart Celebration in the State Opera
***** (5 stars)

The production team may be proud of the new premiere of two forgotten compositions by Camille Saint-Saëns, one-act Hélène and song cycle Nuit Persane, which the State Opera performed to celebrate its 120th anniversary.

Guillaume Tourniaire, a young Chief Conductor, is the soul of the project. He opted for a concert rendering and – just like for recording purposes – he supplemented the one-act Hélène with the song cycle Nuit Persane, thus creating a full-length format. The song cycle dates back to 1892 and fell into oblivion like Hélène did later.

The combination of Nuit Persane and Hélène was an excellent and carefully considered idea.

In both these pieces Saint-Saëns proves to be a master of cultivated music form rooted in Romanticism, achieving maximum effect with limited space through refined instrumentation as well as singing and even recitation in Nuit Persane, sometimes staggering thanks to blurring of boundaries between reality and dream. The comprehensiveness of impression is topped up by texts: in Armanda Renaud’s Nuit Persane it is feverish fragments of a dream stretching from the red-hot Orient desert up to the Capricorn constellation, mixing erotic and existential images and associations. Saint-Saëns, an able author, wrote the libretto for Hélène himself. He splendidly expressed a captivating mixture of feelings of intoxication and anticipation of downfall and amplified them by his music.

Courage to be old-fashioned

Looking from today’s perspective, deliberations as to whether Saint-Saëns’s style is archaic, which were kindled by the succession of impressionism and other modernisms, seem to have lost their urgency. Hélène does not have to be seen as Saint-Saëns’s inability to conform to innovation, but rather as a complete opposite: a proof of strength, integrity and loyalty to those things that from the composer’s point of view work perfectly. As a result of that the composer thus lacks such motivation to change that perhaps guides those who cannot attain this form of perfection or who do not have the courage to be old-fashioned. The success of the concert evening was mainly the work of the conductor Tourniaire; the State Opera made a wise move to obtain him for the position of Chief Conductor. His zeal and enthusiasm for the performance, supported by knowledge of both compositions, had an impact not only on the orchestra, solo singers and the chorus, but had a positive effect also on the audience, whose heart he won.

The orchestra of the State Opera executed this time an unusually unified and brilliantly refined performance, thus highlighting the splendour of the premiere. The score is difficult in its rich instrumentation and unusual instrument combinations and technical demands put on both the players and their interplay, to show mood changes, sensitiveness, seriousness, refinement, colourfulness, French gentleness, charm. It became clear how crucial is the personality of the chief conductor, provided he does not see his position only as a formal one. Besides, the occasional bringing out of the orchestra onto the stage proved beneficial, as it brings new tension and challenges into its play performed directly in front of the eyes of the audience, these emotions otherwise have a tendency to get lost in the orchestra pit.

The performance of solo singers was well balanced at the premiere, gleaming with interest and immersion in the demanding music style that requires extensive expression plasticity. Christina Vasileva graded a rich range of Hélène’s feelings of despair, memories of tranquil marital happiness, anguish, beseeching attempt to fight off growing love, up to a gradation in a duet of passionate love with Paris. Richard Samek as Paris and a high tenor in Nuit Persane showed a dignified interpretation with a feeling for sung word, although towards the end his voice showed slight signs of fatigue.

The State Opera celebrated its anniversary in a creative and smart way. It drew on excellent French cycle by adding Saint-Saëns, who tends to get forgotten, and did so in a new world premiere. Showing pleasant self-confidence, it has thus drawn on the best search traditions of the New German Theatre, and – together with a fine orchestra performance – it has clearly shown its entitlement to the territory of Prague opera.