Saint-Saëns: Hélène

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
ALBUM TITLE: Saint-Saëns
WORKS: Hélène; Nuit persane
PERFORMER: Rosamund Illing, Steve Davislim, Zan McKendree-Wright, Leanne Kenneally; Belle Époque Chorus; Orchestra Victoria/Guillaume Tourniaire


All credit to the highly enterprising Australian label Melba for following up their excellent SACD Ring with such a rarity. No expense spared, either, with superior presentation, excellent notes, and a first-rate cast. Rosamund Illing made her mark in the UK but has become probably Australia’s leading prima donna; Steve Davislim, too, is an outstanding international lyric tenor. Like conductor Guillaume Tourniare, they are both powerful advocates of this long‑forgotten mini-opera that does not, unfortunately, reward their efforts.

The eponymous Dame Nellie herself commissioned this as a showcase; but this is no Samson et Dalila – it’s soggily unmemorable. Appalled by Offenbach’s burlesque, Saint-Saëns sought to restore the story’s classical ‘respectability’, and consequently drained the life and passion out of his libretto. Around his verbose, plonkingly dignified lines the score wanders with pallid greenery-yallery lyricism and little that’s memorable melodically. Illing does inject some fear and doubt, but is given little allure; Leanne Kenneally’s attractive if slightly shrill Venus and Zan McKendree-Wright’s authoritative Pallas have largely characterless music; and for all his honeyed tone Paris sounds as stuffed a shirt as the composer. The surround-sound’s bathtub echo doesn’t help Illing’s rather cloudy diction.

Nuit Persane, a cantata on (then) faintly naughty poems by Renaud,

is more impressive, with much richer, highly-coloured scoring and exotic melodies; only the ending seems abrupt. McKendree-Wright and Davislim are understandably more engaged, and the chorus and French narrator no less so, while Tourniaire undoubtedly catches the translucent quality of the score.

Full marks for effort, therefore,

are deserved by all who took part in this recording; but the main attraction just doesn’t attract.


Michael Scott Rohan