Hélène and Nuit persane

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone (UK)


The Trojan tragedy with great tunes: Dame Nellie’s hit is superbly restored.

Hélène is Saint-Saëns’s one-act opera, long neglected, on the Helen of Troy story, written to his own libretto with reigning diva Nellie Melba specifically in mind. She gave the 1904 premiere in Monte Carlo and it is apt this first recording appears on the Australian Melba label. It is a neatly constructed work with an introduction and seven scenes. Helen has a long, demanding solo early on, resisting the approaches of Venus, the goddess of love, and her chorus as well as Paris, claiming to be faithful to her husband Menelaus. But of course she’s passionately in love with her Trojan suitor and the tale is played out in a series of duets, between Paris and Helen and each with Pallas (Athene), sent by Menelaus amid thunder and lightning to counter the arguments of Venus. Pallas warns of the destruction of Troy if Helen continues. The climactic sixth scene is a full-scale love duet, with Helen given another long solo passage. The final brief scene visualises Paris and Helen on board ship bound for Troy with the voices of the lovers heard atmospherically from afar. Loud chords bring an emphatic close…

…Guillaume Tourniaire is a sympathetic conductor… Rosamund Illing… her bright clear voice is apt... The star performance comes from tenor Steve Davislim, exploiting his wonderfully true and well focused voice over a wide tonal range.

Davislim is again the star in the earlier and even less well know song-cycle Nuit Persane, on the second disc of this beautifully packaged issue, with mezzo Zan McKendree-Wright this time allowed to use her rich chest register. Each of the four sections is introduced by a narrator, leading to nicely balanced sequences of songs with oriental flavours.

With excellent sound, recorded in South Melbourne Town Hall, this is a most valuable issue.