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William Yeoman on Hélène

Monday, 29 September 2008 - 1:13pm

It was a mistake for Peleus and Thetis not to have invited the goddess Discordia to their wedding. But she came anyway, throwing a golden apple, inscribed with the words ‘to the Fairest’, among the other divinities present. When Hera, Aphrodite and Athena strove for possession, Zeus ordered Hermes to carry them to the top of Mt Ida, where the then-shepherd Paris was to judge who, indeed, was ‘the Fairest’. After considering what each of the goddesses offered him as a bribe for choosing her, Paris decided in favour of Aphrodite. His reward? – the hand of the most beautiful (mortal) woman in the world – Helen, daughter of Leda and the divine Zeus. From that moment on, Hera and Athena swore eternal hatred for the Trojans. And from that moment on, too, Helen’s fate was decided. For her, there was never really any choice in the matter.

The myth of Helen of Troy, as depicted in opera, has a long and distinguished history, extending into the modern era with works like Sir Michael Tippett’s King Priam (1962). Among the other operas that either deal directly with, or are in some way related to, the myth of Helen, are Il pomo d’oro, a festa teatrale in a prologue and five acts by Antonio Cesti (first performed in Vienna in 1668); Gluck’s Paride ed Elena, from 1770; Troia distrutta, an opera seria in three acts by Michele Mortellari (first heard in Milan in 1778); Berlioz’s five-act opera Les Troyens; and Offenbach’s opéra bouffe of 1864, La belle Hélène, which so disgusted Camille Saint-Saëns with the frivolous treatment of its theme.

Saint-Saëns was eventually to write a musical riposte to Offenbach. In 1902 the director of the Salle Garnier opera house in Monte Carlo, Raoul Gunsbourg, commissioned from Saint-Saëns what was to be the first of three operas for Monte Carlo (the others being L’ancêtre and Saint-Saëns’ final opera, again on a mythological theme, Déjanire). The result was Hélène, a poème lyrique en un acte to the composer’s own libretto. The first performance was given on 18 February 1904 at the Théâtre de Monte-Carlo, with the iconoclastic Australian soprano Nellie Melba, for whom the role was written, as Helen and Mmes Blot and Héglon as Venus and Pallas respectively. The role of Paris was sung by Monsieur Alvarez.
The work is divided into seven scenes with four tableaux. In addition to a large orchestra that includes bass and contra-bass clarinets, there is an onstage (sur le théâtre) ensemble comprising two piccolos (or recorders), one each of oboe, clarinet, trumpet, tambourine, a harp and an organ.

The struggle between the Dionysian and the (usually victorious) Apollonian in Saint-Saëns is implicit in Hélène, as are ideas of fate and morality – sexual or otherwise. From the Third Scene to the Fifth, Helen is in an almost continuous state of agitation; the sense of release in the last two scenes is palpable. The orchestration is superb throughout, with Saint-Saëns varying timbre and texture precisely according to the import of the text: the transparency of the woodwind writing, the nobility of the brass, the incandescent strings – all combine with the sometimes novel harmonies and a melodic invention that is on a par with the best in Samson et Dalila to produce what must surely be considered a masterpiece.

Following a busy orchestral prelude, the first scene opens outside a palace in Sparta. Paris and the Spartans are within, singing the praises of the absent King Menelaus and his Queen, Helen. She, meanwhile, has fled to a cliff by the sea, torn between love for her husband and desire for Paris. The scene changes with a dramatic orchestral introduction; in Scene 2, whispering strings find an exhausted Helen in turmoil. The music quickly begins to fluctuate between tranquillity and violence, reflecting Helen’s emotional state. Impulsive melodic leaps, feverish declamation and enormous tutti climaxes – like that preceding Helen’s intended suicide – and passages of extraordinary beauty and lyricism – such as that for solo violin and harp when Helen despairs of ever having seen Paris’s face – tumble one after the other in well-crafted confusion. Here, the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy in Saint-Saëns’ nature is perhaps played out more explicitly than otherwise.

At the height of her despair, Helen is about to throw herself from the cliff when, in Scene 3, she is prevented by Venus, the goddess of love, who appears with her attendant nymphs (albeit, confusingly, seemingly in her Roman guise rather than in the personification the Greeks would more readily have recognised, Aphrodite) to persuade Helen to give in to her desires. And most persuasive she is, her words and that of the nymphs (a female chorus) sung to gorgeous melodies clothed in diaphanous harmonies. Helen nevertheless resists, but as Venus disappears Paris himself arrives in Scene 4. Helen eventually surrenders, worn down by the honeyed words of her beloved. And yet she is still troubled. Brass choirs underline Helen’s stubborn fidelity to Menelaus and her affirmation both as Queen and a daughter of Zeus. Paris counters, expansive orchestration mirroring the vast Trojan landscapes of which he sings. As the scene comes to a close, tremolo strings followed by piquant woodwind chords punctuate Helen’s cries to Zeus for pity.

Suddenly, in Scene 5, Pallas appears to warn the lovers of the consequences of their actions by showing them a vision of the burning Troy. (Saint-Saëns here allows himself some artistic licence; surely, as a sworn enemy of Troy, Pallas would have done anything to ensure its destruction?) Here, a gradually thickening orchestral texture, beginning with chromatic thirds in bassoons, cellos and altos and graced by menacing timpani provide a crescendo to Pallas’ entry. Descending chromatic scales proliferate throughout sometimes scoring the hushed strings like cruel sgraffiti as Pallas sternly issues her terrible portent. (This is perhaps as close as Saint-Saëns came to writing a Dies Irae.) Paris refuses to take heed, preferring to sacrifice his family and his homeland for Helen’s love. In Scene 6, dawn’s rosy fingers (to borrow a favourite Homeric metaphor!) illuminate the sky as a solo violin floats serenely over an arpeggio played first by a viola, then a cello, before all three join in an imitative trio.

It is only now that Helen gives herself over to her desires without restraint that her music, too, becomes calmer – as will the weather, since her father, the mighty Zeus, wills it. Winds flutter through Paris’ ecstatic melodies like doves – here a clarinet solo, there pairs of flutes and clarinets echoing each other in triplet figures of sweetly consonant thirds – before his final solo is taken over by Helen’s and a horn solo of great yearning leading to his entry at the duet ‘Ah! Pour l’amour la vie est brève’. A surging orchestral wave breaks in on the final scene, in which the two lovers sail for Troy singing a reprise of Paris’ earlier words: ‘Viens, vers l’Asie enchanteresse. Voguons sur les flots apaisés, Bercés par la double caresse Des zéphyres et des baisers!’

In Brian Rees’ biography Camille Saint-Saëns – A Life, he draws telling attention to the fact that Saint-Saëns was the first to notice a similarity between the appearance of Pallas and that of Brünnhilde to Siegmund in Act 2 of Wagner’s Die Walküre. By 1902 Saint-Saëns had long since parted company with Wagner’s art. But in the heightened sexual tension of Hélène is there not also something of Tristan? Saint-Saëns was among the first of his countrymen to appreciate Wagner’s art; however, as Europe slid towards war, his denunciations of modern music, and German music in particular, were to become increasingly clamorous. Already by the time of Hélène, Saint-Saëns’ style had also become more austere, more restrained. Yet who can deny the opulent Romanticism bursting from the confines of Saint-Saëns’ fastidious scoring in this marvellous work, which surely deserves a permanent place in the repertoire?


William Yeoman

You may also like to read Yves Gerard's notes on The Story of Hélène