Hélène and Nuit persane

Henry Fogel
Fanfare (US)

Melba Recordings is an Australian company named after Dame Nellie Melba, and now they have honoured her in a most appropriate manner. They have made a superb recording of Camille Saint-Saëns’ poème lyrique in one act, Hélène. The Helen in question is Helen of Troy, and the work was commissioned for Dame Nellie Melba…

Hélène strikes me as a major discovery… Hélène has some ecstatic writing for soprano and tenor—two big duets (the soprano is Helen, the tenor is Paris) that are the equal of his best writing in Samson et Dalila. Saint-Saëns was clearly captivated by the tale of the ill-fated love of these two, and he conveys their passion and despair exquisitely. The orchestral colours are remarkably varied and apt; and from beginning to end Hélène captivates and holds a listener who is attracted to the perfumed world of this composer’s best writing. The performance is splendid—particularly the singing of Rosamund Illing as Helen. Her pure, sweet, soaring lyric soprano is just right for this music. But all do their part to make this performance a success, and one has the feeling that they all believe deeply in the score, particularly conductor Tourniaire…

Nuit Persane… we know that Saint-Saëns was always attracted to exotic lands (his tone poem Africa, his “Egyptian” Piano Concerto, Samson et Dalila, and other evidence exist in abundance). He travelled often, and in fact wrote this dramatic scene while in Algiers. The story tells of a woman held in a harem, who dreams of being rescued by a lover. He rides in, carries her off but tragedy hangs over them, and she (in her dream) dies, causing her lover to wreak havoc on mankind, until guilt makes him join the whirling dervishes, sink into an opium sleep, and then dissipate virtually into the air. The music is an expansion of an earlier song cycle by the composer... the singing, conducting, and choral work, are again excellent.

Melba’s sound, heard in regular stereo, is warm, well balanced, and open. Hearing the SACD layer in two channels adds a bit of additional presence and impact to the sound—but in either case it is an excellently engineered set. There are intelligent, long, and helpful notes along with the text and translation. Because of the quality of Hélène and of its performance, I recommend this with enthusiasm.