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Interview with Guillaume Tourniaire - Classique News (France)

Monday, 4 August 2008 - 12:00am

This is a conversation with conductor Guillaume Tourniaire on his return from the Macerata Festival (Italy), where he oversaw the first production of Marco Turino’s opera based on The Servant by Robin Maugham (July 2008). He talks about the score he resurrected for the recording of Hélène, the one-act opera by Camille Saint-Saëns (1904), which the Australian recording company, Melba Recordings, is bringing out in August 2008. Recorded for the first time, the production of this opera on disc is a revelation which shows the genius of a mature composer capable of combining the Wagnerian orchestra with the subtleties of psychological interpretation. The conductor, who will not be seen in France before September 2009, describes the nature of this lyric work for ClassiqueNews as well as his new projects, including Four Poems for Voice and Orchestra by Louis Vierne, a new unpublished gem, and due for recording on CD by Melba Recordings.

Alexandre Pham: From the point of view of emotional dramatic writing, does the Saint-Saëns score show Helen in a different light?

Guillaume Touniaire: When Saint-Saëns wrote Hélène, he already had about a dozen operas to his credit. By deciding this time to write the libretto himself – which he hadn’t done for his previous works – he could give each of his characters a specific, defining personality. By choosing to write a short work in one act tightly constructed around only four protagonists – the chorus though present is essentially placed offstage – he could conceive and highlight the personalities of his heroes in great detail. Apart from the fact that the role of Helen is by far the most prominent in the score, it’s also the most complex in its musical composition.
Venus, accompanied by her host of nymphs and cherubs, is wreathed in warm, sweet harmonies. Pallas, stern and dramatic with her chorus wailing in the wings, her contrabass clarinet and her military band, sometimes reminds us of highly dramatic moments in Samson and Delila. Paris, ardent and reckless, emerges in the score to passionate waves of panting virtuoso strings. To evoke the character of Helen, Saint-Saëns brings to bear every artistic device at his disposal. From her very first words, we know that she is tormented by her passion. Her very short recitative sung a cappella, ‘Where can I flee to escape love?’, forms a contrast with her desperate flight, symbolized in the music by the abrupt and harmonically complex cadences of the orchestra. In a monologue written as a huge orchestrated recitative of striking contrasts (Scene II), Helen describes her torment and the love of her husband Menelaus in what could be the only ‘aria’ or set piece in the score if it were not so brief. She implores her father Zeus to help her regain her sanity, then wants to take her own life. Here Saint-Saëns has full mastery of his composition, going always to the heart of the matter in each situation. Nimbly as a cat he skips quickly over subtle harmonies that seem deceptively simple. Their complexity will be more apparent to the professional musician than the general public.
In the first duet between Helen and Paris (Scene IV), the orchestra becomes the protagonist. The passion that consumes the lovers bursts forth like waves against rock in brilliant surging virtuoso passages by the strings. It is difficult to tell if the singing carries the musical intention, or if it is merely a commentary on the orchestral discourse. It’s only in the second and last duet (Scene VI) that melody will come into its own again, assimilating all the most sensual writing of the French School at that time. From ‘Stars of the night...’ to the lovers’ wild flight towards Asia, Saint-Saëns writes a six-minute musical crescendo with an extraordinary contrapuntal and dramatic progression which is a feat of orchestration. The crescendo increases in passion, speed and intensity until the last scene. An era is coming to a close – it’s 1904 – with the lyricism and colour of the French School joining Wagnerian orchestral writing in the most amazing way...
AP: Is the orchestra an important element in the work?
GT: Saint-Saëns had already shown the orchestral mastery of his writing in Samson and Delila. There are many theatrical effects in Hélène. Right from the overture the sounds of festivities are heard from the wings. The work, which lasts only about an hour, requires no less than four different offstage music groups. One is an impressive military band for Scene V when Pallas describes the horror of the Trojan War to come. Except for Scene III while Venus tries to calm Helen’s torment and the orchestra willingly surrenders to gentle melody, one could almost (!) do without singers to understand the subject matter of the drama. It’s not Wagner, of course, but very many themes, such as hopeless love, the power of Zeus, the lovers’ passion, the kindness of Venus, Menelaus’ castle... could well be enough in themselves for the listener to understand the libretto. And how could you not mention the magic of the beginning of Scene VI when the chamber music gently calms the hearts of the lovers overcome with the horror of Pallas’ prophecies...
AP: In your opinion, which aspects of Saint-Saëns’ writing are featured in the lyric poem Hélène?
GT: For a century Saint-Saëns has been accused of being academic, facile, even reactionary... The lyric poem of Helen alone is enough to make all the composer’s critics change their minds. First of all, the dramatic skill of the score makes us regret the fact that Saint-Saëns did not call on his own theatrical sense more often. Still on this subject, the tight structure of the scenes, the way they contrast and combine is also fascinating. But the most surprising thing in this core is perhaps the fluidity of the music. Everything seems to flow, emanating from a very acute and accurate sense of expression which never appears scholarly. And yet... one only has to try and sing Paris’s first few phrases to realize that hidden behind deceptive first impressions there lies composition of formidable complexity. Just by analysing the end of the orchestral writing in Scene IV, we realize the consummate skill with which the composer has written a jewel of orchestration, making light of harmonic and contrapuntal difficulties. These two minutes of music are stunningly beautiful... What are your next musical projects?I had the tremendous luck to meet Maria Vandamme, the artistic director of the Melba Recordings label, who has produced the recording of Hélène and Nuit persane. Maria is a person of rare sensibility, with a great passion for her work and a great love of French music. What’s more, she’s eager to make new discoveries! She has suggested that I record other CDs and (it’s a musicians dream!) she’s giving me a completely free hand in the choice of works! Isn’t that incredible for a recording company these days?

Our next recording project is happening very soon. I’ll be in Australia in September 2008 to make the first ever recording of four poems for voice and orchestra by Louis Vierne: Les Djinns, Psyché, Eros and La ballade du désespéré, with Steve Davislim and The Queensland Orchestra. They are four incredibly beautiful poems that have never been played since their first performance. Who knows why? Just a few minutes at the piano is enough to gain some idea of the wealth they have to offer, and to be convinced of their musical qualities.

I spend hours every week reading scores I often didn’t know existed. Thanks to Maria Vandamme, other sleeping beauties will open their eyes again and find their way once more into the concert hall...
Alexandre Pham (transcribed/edited by Lucas Irom for ClassiqueNews)

Read the original article in French