Hélène and Nuit persane

William Yeoman
Limelight (Australia)
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One Act Wonder
An insightful interpretation of a Greek legend

Who would have thought the face that launched a thousand ships would one day inspire a French composer to write a one-act opera especially for our own Dame Nellie Melba? And that this astonishing work, first performed in 1904, would quickly fall into oblivion, only to be resurrected in modern times and given its world premiere recording on a label named after the great Australian diva herself? In many ways a riposte to Offenbach’s humorous La belle Hélène, Camille Saint-Saëns’s one-act poeme lyrique treats the love between Helen of Troy and Paris with seriousness and great psychological insight. The music veers from passages of gentle lyricism to surging passion, the performers respond in kind. Both Rosamund Illing and Steve Davislim are in fine dramatic form as Helen and Paris, while Leanne Kenneally and Zan McKendree-Wright are equally persuasive as the goddesses Venus and Pallas Athena. Orchestra Victoria and the conductor Guillaume Tourniaire make the most of the beautifully sculpted score relishing Saint-Saëns’s deft orchestration and subtle handling of an essentially conservative harmonic language.

This lavish 2-CD set includes another world premiere recording, that of the orchestral version of Saint-Saëns’s oriental extravaganza Nuit persane; excellent recorded sound (SACD Hybrid) and fine booklet essays by specialists Bettany Hughes, Professor Hugh McDonald, Dr Thérèse Radic and Yves Gérard increase the allure of what is already an extremely attractive, and important, release.