L’Île du rêve
Hélène Guilmette, Artavazd Sargsyan, Cyrille Dubois, et al; Concert Spirituel Choir; Munich Radio Orchestra/Hervé Niquet
BruZane BZ1042 60:26 mins
The libretto for L’Île du Rêve was Massenet’s consolation prize for Reynaldo Hahn when his pupil failed to win the Prix de Rome; and this short opera – scarcely 60 minutes of music – went on to win a premiere at the Opéra-Comique in 1898. Paris in the 1890s was enslaved by everything oriental, so what ambitious young composer could resist a libretto set in the South Seas? Based on a story by Pierre Loti, whose novel Madame Chrysanthème would eventually become Madama Butterfly, L’île du rêve transports its audience to Gauguin’s Polynesia, a kind of paradise regained where Georges de Kerven, a naval officer named Loti by the locals, falls in love and marries Mahénu. Of course the white man’s wife will become for him the ‘white man’s burden’, but happily the curtain falls before you can say ‘cultural colonisation’.
Hahn is a precociously skilled orchestrator who elegantly sidesteps anything that might sound like ‘local’ colour. Europe rules, with hints of the French Baroque in the prelude to Act II and echoes of Wagner’s Rhine flowing through the start of Act III. A successful song composer, he writes sympathetically for the voice. His cast reward him for his consideration: notably Cyrille Dubois as Loti, though Hélène Guilmette’s Mahénu doesn’t make the vocal journey from teasing girl to abandoned wife as smoothly as she might. Conductor Hervé Niquet coaxes stylish playing from the Munich Radio Orchestra, making the case for a rarity that is much more than an oddity.