Hélène and Nuit persane

Robert E. Benson
Classical CD Review (US)

With the exception of just a few works (Carnival of the Animals, Symphony No. 3, Danse macabre, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and the opera Samson and Delilah), Camille Saint-Saëns' music has been unjustly neglected. The Australian company Melba is doing their part to rectify this with this 2-CD set containing premiere recordings of Hélène, which the composer called a lyric poem in one act, and Nuit Persane, a dramatic cantata scored for tenor, contralto, narrator, chorus and orchestra. Hélène was written for Dame Nellie Melba who sang the premiere in 1904 in Monte Carlo. The reigning soprano of the time must have been very pleased with Hélèn's big aria right at the beginning, as well as the sensual duets with Paris.

The opera contains some lovely music. At least we now have the opportunity to hear it, and the cantata, an expansion of Saint-Saëns' earlier song cycle Mélodies persanes based on poems by Armand Renaud. This rather brief work (31:40), tells of a young girl confined in a harem. When her gallant lover arrives and carries her away, she cannot escape 'the odour of death,' and dies. Her lover then wants revenge on mankind, joins the whirling dervishes, sinks into an opium haze, and spirals into nothingness. This plot is well conveyed by the exotic music.

Melba has provided a 100-page booklet with complete texts with translations for both of these works,. This is unusual, worthy music, welcome additions to the catalog, superbly performed and recorded. Another class act from Melba!