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The Story of Hélène

Monday, 29 September 2008 - 12:31pm

It was due to a chance encounter in front of the Grand Hotel, located near the Paris Opera with the Director of the Théâtre de Monte Carlo, during the summer of 1902 that Saint-Saëns wrote his opera Hélène.

Raoul Gunsbourg offered to commission a lyrical work in one act on the subject of his choice. Since 1860, Saint-Saëns was interested by the myth of Hélène, but the success of La Belle Hélène by Offenbach had discouraged him.

He used this opportunity to renew with his vision of Hélène ‘escaping from her palace, in the middle of the night, broken, exhausted, arriving on sea shore, to meet Pâris. A passionate scene follows that shows her fight against her forbidden love, her defeat and her subsequent flight with her lover. ‘I have never been able to imagine Hélène just as a woman in love. She is enslaved by her destiny, a victim of Aphrodite used by the goddess to promote her glory. She stands proud and her fall does not call for mockery, but must inspire an intense terror instead’. With these words Saint-Saëns resumes perfectly the subject of his opera.

After his arrival in Egypt in December 1902, Saint-Saëns worked on the libretto that he wrote in twelve days, in February 1903. He took refuge ‘in the middle of the Suez Isthmus, on the gorgeous island of Ismaïlia’. He had decided not to use a librettist. His apprenticeship of the Greek language and culture during his youth, had given him the love of Homer, Eschyle, Theocritus, Ovid and most of all of Virgil from whom he took his inspiration to describe the palace of Menelaus. The musical composition was written when he was not working in Paris. For the greatest part while he stayed in Mont-Revard, near Aix-les-Bains, in July 1903. He finished the score on October 11, in Paris.

The opera was premiered in Monte Carlo on February 18, 1904, for a gala performance that included apart from Hélène, Massenet’s La Navarraise.

The music critic Gustave Samazeuilh resumed the action: ‘Hélène has taken refuge on a cliff, she tries, in vain, to forget about her criminal love for Pâris. She pleads with Zeus, asking him to let her escape from Eros’s trap by dying instead. Vénus, appears on the surface of the sea, where the nymphs are singing softly. The mighty Vénus foretells the arrival of Pâris. The vision fades and soon enough, Pâris arrives, his overwhelming love weakens Hélène’s will. Pallas pleads in vain with Pâris to forget his criminal project. In a vision, she reveals to the terrified lovers the destruction and the bloodshed that will occur in Troy. Nothing will stop Hélène to sail towards Troy, she only thinks of love and does not want to know what the future reserves’.

The opera is set in 7 scenes and 4 tableaux, the journalists noted that it was ‘a short, compressed work, full of drama and passion. Iat followed the tradition of the Greek theatre that was reborn through its characters. It had to be performed quickly and without intermissions’.

Nellie Melba who sang Hélène, Madame Héglon (Pallas), Madame Blot (Vénus) and tenor Alvarez were highly praised at the first performance. The stagging was also well received and one had to ‘remember the superb sets of Monsieur Ronsin which added to the beauty of the opera that was stunning’.

The music critic Pierre Lalo, an enemy of Saint-Saëns, declared that after his two failures in his youth at the concours de Rome, the composer had at last written a perfect cantata that could serve as a model for futures candidates!

However, it was not the general opinion for most music critics. They agreed that the work had more to do with a meditation of the unavoidability of destiny than the retelling of a real action. They underlined the quality of the declamation, the orchestral novelties, the off stage sounds effects and the amazing aspect of ‘the sinister scene of Pallas (set in E flat minor!) ‘There is even a passage in A minor with 7 flat placed before the note!’ commented a musician who at long last was able to use a bass-clarinet for the performance, an instrument that was very rarely used. The success grew at each performance. After the triumph of the third performance, Madame Héglon wanted to sing Pallas’s scene in concert and Nellie Melba the final duet and the Vénus’ scene.

But after its creation in French at Covent Garden, staring with Nellie Melba, it seems that the diva lost her interest in the opera. Hélène was supposed to be staged again in Paris at the Opéra-Comique on January 18, 1905 with Mary Garden in the title role, then much later at the Paris Opera on June 20, 1919 with Madame Demougeot who was a great friend of the composer. The opera was also premiered in Milano on November 26, 1904 and in Frankfurt on January 14, 1905.

Hélène can be categorised amongst the works inspired by Roman and Greek civilisation that influenced Saint-Saëns deeply. When he was fifteen years old in 1850-1, he wrote a prologue to Antigone. He was inspired by Greek mythology for his symphonic poems Le Rouet d’Omphale, Phaëton, and La Jeunesse d’Hercule. He also opened the festival of Béziers in 1898 with his Déjanire and in 1901, he composed Les Barbares (the barbarians) for the Paris Opera.

Hélène marked the ultimate stage before the rewriting of Déjanire in 1911 for the Paris Opera that was to conclude the cycle of his ‘Classical works’.

Yves Gérard

William Yeoman on Hélène