Poème lyrique en un acte
Music and libretto by Camille Saint-Saëns
First performed: Théâtre de Monte-Carlo, 18 February 1904
The opera was performed in London, Milan & Frankfurt in 1904; ran for seven performances at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in January 1905; and for another 7 performances at the Paris Opéra in June 1919.
For the dossier, including contemporary criticism and Saint-Saëns’ own writing about the opera, see here.
An opera about Helen and Paris’s forbidden love that caused the Trojan Wars deserves better. Saint-Saëns’s obscure opera, a vehicle for Nellie Melba, has a weak story and an uninspired score.
There’s almost no action. Paris has been promised the love of Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta. She stands alone on a clifftop, determined to resist her suitor. Venus appears: Submit to love! Paris persuades Helen to flee. Pallas Athene appears, and warns them not to flee, or everyone will die in the Trojan Wars. Paris: “Let my father, my country and all my relatives die; my love is greater!” Pallas Athene, unimpressed, shrugs and disappears, no doubt thinking what fools these mortals be. Helen, rather than realizing she’s got a sociopath on her hands, is so impressed that she vows to join Paris in his crime. Then they flee. As a story, it’s both static and schematic.
The music badly wants to be Wagner. The prelude even quotes from the Magic Fire Music. Like Wagner, both music and libretto are by the same hand, and it’s through composed, seven scenes without any formal numbers – or any tunes, either. There are a couple of interesting phrases, but, like Proserpine, it’s largely heightened recit over an uninteresting accompaniment. The most effective scene is Pallas’s warning to the couple, and there Saint-Saëns has a Wagnerian model for a contralto supernatural messenger of woe.
Saint-Saëns’s music doesn’t do anything wrong, but it doesn’t do anything right either. It’s clear, it’s correct, but it lacks inspiration and passion. The love duet should be epic; the situation and the historical context call for something on the lines of the love duets in Les Huguenots, Les Troyens or Tristan. Saint-Saëns showed in Samson et Dalila that he could write sensuous music. Here the lovers declare their feelings in a tranquillo adagio. The duet doesn’t convince us; it doesn’t quicken the pulse. Even the Big Tune, entrusted to the orchestra, fails to come off.
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? The face that set ablaze a small box of matches, more like.
The only recording is excellent; Rosamund Illing is a lyrical Hélène and Steve Davislim an ardent Paris. It also comes with Nuit persane, a song cycle.
- Hélène / Nuit persane, with Rosamund Illing, Steve Davislim, Leanne Kenneally and Zan McKendree-Wright, with the Belle Époque Chorus and Orchestra Victoria conducted by Guillaume Tournaire. Melba Recordings, 2008.