Forgotten music by
'... a performance of avowed committment.'
Within the last few years Australia's Melba Records has set unparalleled, ground-breaking standards in the production, presentation, packaging and design of SACD recordings.
And, as if that were not enough, the land of dingos, didjeridoos and uranium deposits achieves performance standards every bit the equal of their Northern Hemisphere counterparts.
Now they turn their attention to important, though recently rediscovered works by the exceptionally prolific, universally erudite French composer, pianist, organist, man of letters and organizer, Camille Saint-Saëns. Works under discussion are Hélène, a dramatic/lyrical opera in one act for soloists, choir and orchestra, and Nuit Persane, Op 26 (Song cycle); text by Armand Renaud (1836-1895) for mezzo-soprano, tenor, speaker, choir and orchestra. To some extent Hélène was a written as a sturdy response to Offenbach's frivolous take on Aegean events in his three-act opéra bouffe 'La belle Hélène' (1864).
Saint-Saëns chose to explore Hélène's motives for leaving husband Menelaus, King of Sparta, to go with Trojan prince Paris, thereby triggering a great historical conflict, the Trojan War; variously dated between 1135 BC and 1334 BC. On the one hand the goddess Venus urges her to follow her heart while Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and war cautions her otherwise, envisioning the fate of Troy if Hélène leaves with Paris.
Several sources say Helen willingly left behind her husband Menelaus and Hermione, their nine-year-old daughter, to be with Paris. Scholars have argued that Helen's abduction by Paris was in fact a rape. Ancient vases depict both the shameless Helen who went willingly to Troy and abduction stories in which Helen is taken by force.
Helen's relationship with Paris varies depending on the source of the story. In some, she loved him dearly. In others, she was portrayed as Paris' unwilling captive; a cruel, selfish woman who hated him and brought disaster to everyone around her. In all, she is described as being of magnificent beauty.
When he discovered that his wife was missing, Menelaus called upon all the other suitors to fulfill their oaths, thus beginning the bloody Trojan War.
Maria Vandamme, executive director of Melbourne's Melba Foundation, disinterred the score of Saint-Saëns' Hélène in the archives of the Monte Carlo Opera, while searching for documentary material on Dame Nellie Melba.
More than a century earlier Hélène (played by Melba) enjoyed a successful premiere (1904) at Théâtre de Monte Carlo Opera; then it was staged at Covent Garden, the Opéra Comique (Paris) and finally Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Subsequently, for all practical purposes, it vanished.
Why it was so fated remains a mystery for Hélène is a memorable work combining declamatory qualities of fine opera with the intense glow of ruminative 19th century Romantic-lyrical song. Having said that another recent commentator wrote of both works, 'it's impossible not to feel that posterity's judgement has been fair'.
Nuit Persane started out as the series of Mélodies Persanes, Op 26 (1870-71). Its exotic melodies were warmly received and in 1891 the composer rescored the work (as above). Simultaneously he rearranged the original order of the songs, added some new ones and renamed the cycle Nuit Persane.
The original version Mélodies Persanes has survived and is found on CD with French baritone François le Roux and pianist Graham Johnson (Hyperion, 2005). But the vocal-instrumental score of Nuit Persane followed Hélène into a forgotten archive.
Hélène is a lyrical work of notable substance and dramatic clout; it's lengthy disappearance-neglect apparently a needless oversight by musicians far and wide. Now, finally, we have reason to be thankful that Melba Records and musicians of Australia's most urbanized state have brought it to our attention in a performance of avowed committment.
After Hélène was dusted off, the Czech Republic became the first to breathe renewed life into it. Prague State Opera was about to celebrate the 120th anniversary of its home, the New German Theatre, initially opened on 5 January 1888.
So on 13 February 2008 the State Opera celebrated the historic theatre jubilee, with a 'concert' revival of Saint-Saëns' re-discovered opera. For that occasion the four soloists were Hélène -- Christina Vasilevova, soprano; Venus -- Pavla Vykopalova, mezzo; Pallas Athena -- Jana Sykorova, mezzo; and Paris -- Richard Samek, tenor. Melba Records' guest director, Guillaume Tourniaire, conducted.
Saint-Saëns, a noted Grecophile, wrote his own libretto on the Southern Peloponese island of Kranai connected to the coast by a short causeway and looking out across the Southern Aegean towards the Parnon mountains in the east and Taygetos in the north-west. According to Homer, the island was the first refuge of Hélène and Paris on their journey to Troy. The myth relates that Paris forgot his helmet on the islet as he was leaving -- hence its name, since in Greek a helmet is called 'kranos'.
The score was written in Aix-les-Bains in the French Rhône-Alpes region.
Within the first fifty seconds of Saint-Saëns' rousing (2'05") orchestral introduction, we hear fleeting suggestions of Mendelssohn and Berlioz.
Listen -- Introduction (Hélène)
(CD1 track 1, 0:03-0:47) © 2008 Melba Recordings
Then the music flows, without break, into the equally brief first Scène featuring Paris and a chorus of 'Spartiates' (an elite warrior class of the rigidly hierarchical Spartan society in Hellenic times).
From Hélène's eleven minute soliloquy (2nd Scene), one becomes acutely aware of the work's exacting vocal demands and Saint-Saëns' exquisite orchestral scene painting; perhaps most notably by the Oz winds.
Listen -- Scène Deuxième (Hélène)
(CD1 track 3, 2:13-3:11) © 2008 Melba Recordings
Title role soprano, Rosamund Illing, manages the prodigious dramatic compass with stirring magisterial power, offset by melting sotto voce beauty; a breathtaking re-acquaintance with this fine poème lyrique.
The third scene involves Hélène, Venus (lyric soprano -- Leanne Kenneally) and nymphes (chorus), and Kenneally copes superbly with the fiercesome demands, revealing undiminished evenness in the highest register. (Note that Venus, a Roman goddess, and Aphrodite, a Greek goddess, are exact counterparts.)
Listen -- Scène Sixième (Hélène)
(CD1 track 7, 0:41-2:22) © 2008 Melba Recordings
Listen for a pastel violin solo (6th scene) usher in the daybreak in which Hélène soliloquizes over all that Paris is putting behind him. Equal craftsmanship is evident as Saint-Saëns suggests a suspenseful lull prior to the Trojan conflict (5th Scene -- until 4'35").
If space allowed and commonsense decreed one could track through these vocal and orchestral performances and time after time single out phrases expertly and lovingly accomplished.
Melba's booklet-case is one of a kind; deluxe in appearance, exhaustive in its informed content; top of its class. Look forward to following the Hélène libretto and Nuit Persane song texts. The opera is documented under the title The Eternal Allure and the song cycle, The Lure of the East. Dr Thérèse Radic provides a note on Dame Nellie Melba, and Guillaume Tourniaire adds a conductor's perspective of Saint-Saëns. There are photos and biogs of the soloists, conductor and Dame Nellie. Other photos are from Terry Lane and (historic) images courtesy of Editions Durand-Salabert-Eschig of Paris.
(Please note that CD 1 has seven scenes and eight tracks. When following Melba's notes, since Hélène's orchestral introduction occupies track 1, track 2 is given to scene 1, track 3 becomes scene 2, and so on.)
Nuit Persane, Op 26b ('Persian Night' -- all 31'40" of it) occupies CD 2 and is divided into four parts -- 'The Lonely Woman', 'The Valley of Union', 'Flower of Blood' and 'An Opium Dream'. Each of these is prefaced by a prelude titled 'The Voice of the Dream'.
Following each of the four preludes, part 1 includes three songs, part 2 two songs and parts 3 and 4, one song each.
Armand Renaud's text is somewhat overripe, quasi-Persian poetry reminiscent of a latter-day Omar Khayyám. The music and librettist are decidedly French but Renaud's texts refer to lands currently beset by conflict with Nato and US forces striving to contain Taliban insurgents. Renaud's exotic imagery evokes a time aeons before the landmines and helicopter gunships; a world of pale white horses with flowing manes and tails, Zabulistan beauties, soft red lips, the flame of divine sensual love, whirling dervishes, gaoler's scimitars, a lake of love et al.
Listen -- Songe d'opium (Nuit Persane)
(CD2 track 10, 3:08-4:12 and track 11, 0:00-0:33) © 2008 Melba Recordings
The offbeat combination of narrator, mezzo, tenor, choir and orchestra left me personally underwhelmed. But there's no denying Melba Records' team; narrator Amanda Mouellic, tenor Steve Davislim and alto Zan McKendree-Wright acquit themselves persuasively throughout the cycle.
Orchestra Victoria's brief provides for The Australian Ballet, Opera Australia, Victorian Opera, The Production Company, Melbourne -- a stage musical organisation -- plus free Community Program concerts and education workshops throughout the state. It has ongoing experience across the spectrum delivering around two hundred performances to almost 250,000 people throughout Melbourne and regional Victoria each year. Orchestra Victoria is one of Australia's busiest, versatile orchestras.
Copyright © 14 August 2008
Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand
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Saint-Saëns: Hélène; Nuit Persane
MR 301114-2 SACD Stereo NEW RELEASE (2 CDs) 61'18"/31'40" - TT 92'58" 2008 Melba Recordings
Rosamund Illing, Hélène; Steve Davislim, Pâris, tenor; Leanne Kenneally, Venus; Zan McKendree-Wright, Pallas, contralto; Amanda Mouellic, narrator; Belle Époque Chorus; Orchestra Victoria; Guillaume Tourniaire, conductor
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Hélène (Poème Lyrique in One Act, 1903-4, with libretto by the composer - Introduction; Scenes 1-7); Nuit Persane, Op 26b (for tenor, contralto, narrator, chorus and orchestra, with text by Armand Renaud - Part 1 - La solitaire: Prélude; La brise; La solitaire; La fuite; Part 2 - La vallée de l'union: Prélude; Au cimetière; Les cygnes; Part 3 - Fleurs de sang: Prélude; Sabre en main; Part 4 - Songe d'opium: Prélude; Tournoiement)