Hélène and Nuit persane

Graham Williams

Saint-Saëns was undoubtedly one of the most gifted and precocious musicians of the nineteenth century, yet today his reputation as a composer rests on a handful of mainly orchestral pieces, while of his many operas only Samson et Dalila retains a place on the operatic stage, although a few of the others have been recorded.

The reason for the neglect of much of his huge body of composition in every genre is difficult to fathom. In much published musical criticism his wonderful melodic gift is ignored or taken for granted while he is all too often unfairly criticised both for his conservative and ‘old fashioned style’ and even more bizarrely for the facility and meticulous craftsmanship of his scores.

This world premiere recording of Hélène from Melba Recordings gives listeners the opportunity to re-evaluate a further example of the composer’s extensive operatic output and judge its quality for themselves.

Saint-Saëns wrote Hélène for the opening of the new opera house in Monte Carlo in 1904. Dame Nellie Melba sang the title role and the work was a huge success. It was subsequently staged at other major opera houses in Europe and then disappeared without trace. In 2007 Maria Vandamme CEO of Melba Recordings discovered the score in the archives of the Monte Carlo Opera while searching for documentary material on Nellie Melba, which led to this recording being made between the 8th to the 11th October the same year.

Lasting just 61’, Hélène is cast in seven scenes that follow a short orchestral introduction. There are just four characters. The lovers Paris and Hélène, the former consumed with passion for his beloved, the latter torn between her feelings for Paris and her guilt for betrayal of her husband Menelaus. Venus, who urges Hélène to submit to her desires, and finally Pallas Athene who warns of the destruction of Troy, but to no avail…

Illing’s diction is admirably clear and she manages to capture Hélène’s inner turmoil while still producing consistently beautiful tone and excitingly dramatic singing in this most taxing role. Leanne Kenneally’s Venus is equally engaging and her coloratura scene with Hélène, accompanied by a sensual chorus of nymphs, exemplifies Saint-Saëns’ lovely vocal writing and is one of the highlights of the opera. As Paris, Steve Davislim manages to adopt a suitably French timbre. He uses his fine lyric tenor to produce singing that is, by turns, thrillingly passionate and caressingly sweet. His is an altogether first-rate performance. The Pallas Athene of Zan McKendree-Wright... does give a suitably imposing account of the music in her magnificent confrontation with Paris (Scene 5).

The rather jolly orchestral introduction, representing celebrations in the palace of Menelaus, allows appreciation of the fine orchestral playing of the Orchestra Victoria and the spirited and committed direction of the conductor Guillaume Tourniaire after which Saint-Saëns conjures up a Peloponnesian atmosphere in music of ravishing tenderness before the drama begins to unfold with Hélène’s impassioned soliloquy…

The recording is well balanced with the voices set a little forward from the orchestra and it has plenty of presence. At this point mention should be made of the very imaginative and effective use of the surround sound channels in the multi-channel version of these hybrid SACDs by the excellent recording engineer, Phil Rowlands. The offstage chorus of Spartans in Scene 1, the Nymphs’ chorus in Scene 3, the cries of the Trojans in Scene 5 and the departure of Paris and Hélène in the final scene all benefit from his judicious use of the rear channels.

Those content to dismiss this opera as an example of 19th century sentimentality will deny themselves exposure to a work of considerable imagination and beauty, while lovers of the operas of Gounod, Berlioz and Massenet and 19th century French romantic opera in general should acquire this fine recording without delay.

A second SACD in the set contains another world premiere recording Nuit Persane is a cantata for tenor, contralto, narrator, chorus and orchestra that Saint-Saëns re-worked from an earlier song cycle Mélodies Persanes. His fascination with the Middle Eastern world and North Africa is well known and exemplified in a number of his compositions (Suite Algérienne, Piano Concerto No 5 "Egyptian" and the Africa Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra). Nuit Persane is another work inspired by his love of the region. It is a setting of eleven poems by Armand Renaud. The work is divided into four parts entitled ‘The Lonely Woman’, ‘The Valley of Union’, ‘Flower of Blood’ and ‘An Opium Dream’, which give a flavour of the exotic imagery of the poems. There is little doubt that these poems fired Saint-Saëns’ imagination and his musical settings are richly melodic and full of poetic touches of orchestration, which include a beautiful horn solo in the prelude to the final section (track 11). Both soloists (Steve Davislim and Zan McKendree-Wright) and the splendid Belle Époque chorus give fine accounts of these songs while Amanda Mouellic’s soft delivery of the narration is a joy to hear. Guillaume Tourniaire and Melba Recordings have done a great service in reviving this work, which makes a fine companion to the opera.

The two SACDs are sumptuously packaged within a 97 page hard backed book. In addition to the complete texts in English and French there are informative background essays on the music, a detailed proselytising note by the conductor, and photographs of the artists together with their biographies.

This is a gorgeous set that does justice to Saint-Saëns’ beguiling creations and is highly recommended.

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