Hélène and Nuit persane

Gérard Condé
Opéra (France)

Hélène…deserves to be known.

As the librettists of Offenbach pointed out, Hélène is a victim of fate, but Saint-Saëns decided to take the subject seriously and to write the libretto himself that he could not obtain from anyone else. It is that which he risked setting to music. He has the chorus of drinkers sing “Glory to King Menelaus!” at the start of the work and then extracts from the daughter of Leda, “I lived peacefully, honoured by my noble, adored husband”.

Certainly, disarmed by the remarks of Venus that she will give herself to the handsome Paris, Hélène nobly refuses before confessing, “He who I love is not my husband, is not the divine Menelaus, he is you!”
The magic lantern of Pallas- Waltraute, which reveals unhappy images of Troy, makes no difference because the greater the crime of passion, the more one has to give into it….the ardent love duet, with an echo of Louise, is the climax of the work.  
A spirited symphonic interlude (like that from Esclarmonde) clearly invokes the preparations for a voyage. In the brief final tableau a boat sails, carrying Hélène and Paris, embracing and singing.

Pierre Lalo sees Hélène less as an opera, but rather as a cantata, more worthy of the Prix de Rome than any other with which Saint-Saëns could have won in the past. It is true that this refined and austere work, halfway between Thaïs and Pénélope, where one encounters nothing vulgar nor outstanding (except the dark sounds of a bass clarinet as in Fervaal and Le Roi Arthus), evokes an eccentric whim, a literary diversion, as elsewhere the song cycle with chorus and orchestra; Nuit persane, that accompanies the main work on the CDs. This too is worthy of being known. One has to listen several times to enter into the work’s true depths, into its secrets, passing over our prejudices.

The quality performance is a committed and expressive one under the direction of the young conductor who is attentive to the colours and the climaxes and with a tenor (Steve Davislim ) full of spirit and style, sure of voice and not fearing the well placed high notes. The humane and radiant Hélène (Rosamund Illing )…Zan McKendree-Wright …captivating, contralto voice. Fresh and coquettish, the Venus of Leanne Kenneally is well in the picture…  
a beautiful product.