Hélène and Nuit persane

Samuel Moreau
Anacluse (France)

Following such works as the Prologue d’Antigone, Le Rouet d’Omphale, Phaëton, La Jeunesse d’Hercule and Déjanire, with Hélène Camille Saint-Saëns once again allowed himself to indulge his passion for Greco-Roman civilization. It was Raoul Gunsbourg, the director of the Monte  Carlo theatre who suggested that he write a one-act lyric work, giving him a free choice of subject. The idea then occurred to the composer to use the story of the woman who caused the Trojan War. He had already thought of it years earlier when Offenbach had such a resounding success with his Belle Hélène. Now he could set his own vision of the myth to music:
“Hélène fleeing through the night, emotionally and physically exhausted,
 reaching the seashore, far from her palace, joined by Paris; a passionate scene, her resistance is finally overcome; the ultimate flight of the two lovers after a desperate struggle.”
He adds, “For I have never been able to see Helen simply as a woman in love. She is the slave of fate, the victim of Aphrodite, sacrificed to the goddess’s glory. She is a noble figure and rather than provoking laughter, her misdeed inspires holy terror”

In February 1903, having set up house in the middle of the Isthmus of Suez, Saint-Saëns took only twelve days to create his libretto. As for the actual composition, that was done in various places, (Paris, Mont-Revard), and finally completed on 11 October. The première took place in Monte Carlo on 18 February 1904 as an accompanying work to a revival of Massenet’s La Navarraise. The lyric poem is divided into seven scenes and four tableaux. Its success increased with subsequent performances at La Scala Milan (November 1904), Frankfurt and then the Opéra Comique (January 1905) and finally, quite some time later, at the Opéra Garnier (June 1919).

Rosamund Illing , a lyric soprano with a brilliant upper register mellowed by great softness  and smoothness, does well in the title role. Leanne Keneally (Venus) has a purer, clearer tone and is just as appealing….Steve Davislim (Paris) sings with supple elegance. Zan McKendree-Wright (Pallas) completes this pleasing vocal quartet. The conducting of Guillaume Tournaire , who heads Orchestra Victoria , is both dynamic and subtle.

Nuit persane, Op. 26b, is based on a collection of six songs for voice and piano (1870), which Saint-Saëns took from a book by Armand Renaud. Living at that time in Algiers, from 21 November to 26 December 1891, the composer orchestrated five of the original songs, adding La Fuite and Les Cygnes and something like a scenario linking them all together. The originality of the work lies in the variety of its vocal combinations. The première took place under the direction of Édouard Colonne at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 14 February 1892. Given its very favorable reception, it was decided to play the work again a week later. The tenor…and the contralto heard in the previous work also take part in this version, accompanied by the Belle Époque Chorus and the narrator Amanda Mouellic, who both give very assured performances.