Hélène and Nuit persane

John Pitt
New Classics (UK)

Saint-Saëns wrote his one-act ‘poème lyrique’ Hélène for the legendary operatic superstar Dame Nellie Melba, who sang the title role in its first performance in Monte Carlo in 1904.

After performances in London, Milan and Paris, the work fell into obscurity (as did most of Saint-Saëns’ operas), until Melba Recordings’ founder Maria Vandamme rediscovered the original score in a basement at the Monte Carlo opera house, where it had remained untouched since 1904.

Written in frustrated response to La belle Hélène, Offenbach’s tongue-in-cheek take on the story of ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, Saint-Saëns depicts one of history’s greatest love affairs in music that is characterised by soaring lyricism and shot through with sumptuous melodies wholly befitting the epic and dramatic romance it describes.

In this historic first recording, the brilliant young French conductor Guillaume Tourniaire conducts Orchestra Victoria and a fine cast led by the young Australian tenor Steve Davislim and soprano Rosamund Illing as the star-struck lovers Paris and Helen.

This invaluable CD also includes another world premiere recording, the orchestral version of Saint-Saëns’ hypnotic cycle for narrator, tenor, alto, chorus and orchestra of Armand Renaud’s Nuit Persane, a six-song cycle that has for many years been performed only as a piano and vocal piece. This full version calls for two singers, a narrator, chorus and full orchestra, and again features the voice of Steve Davislim.

The beautifully packaged double SACD comes with a lavish colour booklet including essays, illustrations and translations, with full libretto and song texts. This is a rare opportunity to hear an unjustly neglected work by one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and versatile composers.