Saint-Saëns: Hélène; Nuit persane

Illing, Davislim, Kenneally; Belle Epoque Chorus, Orchestra Victoria/Tourniaire (Melba MR301114-2)

1 August 2008 2 stars

HeleneWhile Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, if not a sure-fire audience favourite, can be counted as a repertory opera, the composer's other essays in the genre, a total of fourteen, have all sunk into oblivion. Australian label, Melba, is to be congratulated then for exhuming Saint-Saëns' Héléne, composed for the Théâtre de Monte-Carlo and first performed there by Nellie Melba in February 1904. On this lavishly produced double SACD set, it is coupled with another premiere recording, of the orchestral version of Nuit persane.

Héléne enjoyed a brief period of popularity which was due in no small part, one suspects, to Melba's advocacy. However, although the booklet speaks confidently of its 'well-deserved revival', I find it difficult to share that enthusiasm. For a work written a year before Strauss's Salome and a couple of years after Debussy's Pelléas et Mélissande, Hélène sounds too often as though it's stuck in a time warp.

Saint-Saëns professed aim in writing the work, designated Poème lyrique, was to explore the psychological conflicts experienced by Helen as she decides between following the handsome Paris and sparking off the bloodiest conflict of ancient history, the Trojan war, or sticking with husband Menelaus. On the one hand, she's egged on by Venus and her nymphs while, on the other, she is warned by Pallas – in sternly prophetic terms superficially redolent of Erda's interjecitons in the Ring – of the terrible consequences that will result in her subordinating  her duties as 'daughter of the gods and queen' to love. The work closes, however, with Helene's capitulation as she and Paris sail off into the sunset.

Saint-Saëns had been appalled, we are told, by Offenbach's flippant treatment of the subject in La belle Hélène so set out, in his own work, seriously to explore the nature of Helen's dilemma. He penned his own text which divides the action into seven scenes and has no shortage of colourful text. In the second scene, for example, Helen stands atop a cliff first begging Zeus to lay her low with thunderbolts, then contemplating throwing herself into the sea; Pallas's prophecy is also bursting with bloody images of the Trojan war.

However, having produced a text that offers several decent opportunities for the composer, Saint-Saëns consistently fails to produce music that is much more than simply picturesque. Although it's perfectly fair for Guillaume Tourniaire to try and defend the composer for opting to set up camp some distance from the front-line of modernism, there's a fatal gulf between Saint-Saëns's desire to flesh out Helen's character and the means he employs to do so. The opera has been created, it seems, in a world where Wagner – whose brand of operatic psychoanalysis might well have proved useful to Saint-Saëns in his aims – never existed. Nor, judging by the essentially idealized, Apollonian atmosphere the work inhabits, does the composer seem to have had much time for Nietzsche. The ultimate irony of Saint-Saëns's position is that in trying to produce a serious response to Offenbach, as Hugh MacDonald suggests in his booklet essay was part of his motivation, he actually wrote an opera that can sound at times like a parody of nineteenth-century sentimentality.

Saint-Saëns was undoubtedly a fine composer and the score, whatever its dramatic deficiencies, contains ample evidence of his melodic gift. There's a strong, surging motif in the scene change before Helen's first scene leading into a bracing depiction of the windswept cliff top. As she softens in her first thoughts of Paris, to the accompaniment of a harp and violin, the effect is touching. Similarly the final duet between her and Paris is ardently romantic. Elsewhere, though, the score is either saccharine - as for much of Venus's music - or tepid, as for example, to accompany Helen singing 'may the wrath of Aphrodite cast me into Hades'. Although the mysterious strains that herald the arrival of Pallas are atmospheric, much of her prophecy sounds strangely jolly and the dissonances Saint-Saëns introduces to add drama are unsophisticated in the extreme; however, he does succeed in building in this passage some cumulative dramatic tension, probably the strongest in the work.

The performance itself is admirably committed, with Tourniaire obviously believing in the piece and conducting it with great skill. Orchestra Victoria plays very well but the work of the singers is undermined by the unfocussed and reverberant sound; the voices almost sound as though they've been recorded in a different acoustic. Rosamund Illing has a very decent stab as Helen but ultimately falls short of the vocal glamour this role seems to demand, often sounding shrill rather than seductive. Steve Davislim sings with lyrical ardour as Paris, although I sometimes wished for a bit more dramatic bite, while Zan McKendree-Wright is appropriately authoritative and serious as Pallas. Leanne Kenneally is a very respectable Venus but, like Illing, fails to live up to one's expectations for a portrayal of idealised beauty. All the principles have decent French even if the text isn't always successfully communicated.

A second disc on the set contains another world premiere, of the orchestral version of Nuit persane, a dramatic cantata for tenor, contralto and narrator adapted from the 1870 song cycle, Mélodies persanes. As the narrator, Amanda Mouellic milks Armand Renaud's poetry for all its perfumed sensuality; Davislim is polished and McKendree-Wright, maybe sounding more matronly than ideal here, also turns in a good performance. Once again, though, the unfocussed recorded sound only adds to the wishy-washy feel of the work. There are some clever compositional touches such as in the final, opium-induced 'Tournoiement', and 'Les cygnes' has hints of Dalila's music, yet there is too little in the piece that is truly memorable.

Of course, any premiere recording of a work by an important composer – which Saint-Saëns must be, given the enormous popularity of a handful of his works - is to be welcomed. And there's nothing half-hearted about this beautifully presented, lavishly illustrated and documented release from Melba. Both the main work, Hélène, and its companion-piece, have undoubted curiosity value. However, it's impossible not to feel that posterity's judgement has been fair.

By Hugo Shirley