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Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
L’Île du rêve (The Isle of Dreams) – Polynesian Idyll in 3 acts (1891-93, revised 1894; premiere 1898 Paris)
Libretto by Georges Hartmann and André Alexandre (after Le Mariage de Loti by Pierre Loti)
Hélène Guilmette – Mahénu, a Tahitian girl
Cyrille Dubois – French Naval Officer, Lieutenant Georges de Kerven, aka Lotti
Anaïk Morel – Oréna, a Tahitian princess
Artavazd Sargsyan – Tsen-Lee, a Chinese merchant/First Officer
Ludivine Gombert – Téria, sister of Mahénu/Faïtmana, a female courtier
Thomas Dolié – Taïrapa, an old Tahitian, adoptive father of Mahénu/Henri, a naval officer/Second Officer
Chœur du Concert Spirituel
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Hervé Niquet
rec. Concert staging, rehearsal, 24th, 26th January 2020, Prinzregententheater, Munich, Germany
Full libretto and synopsis – Bilingual edition (English and French)
Cast, track listing and book contents provided at end of review
Opéra français (French opera) CD-book series of Bru Zane, Volume 26
BRU ZANE BZ1042 [60:19]

Bru Zane continues to impress with its exploration of the French musical heritage of the nineteenth century, specifically the period 1780-1920. Its Opéra français series, now at volume 26, is especially valuable and with this new release, a ‘world premiere’ recording of Reynaldo Hahn’s opera in three acts L’Île du rêve (The Isle of Dreams), continues its objective of rediscovering and reviving French stage works. A name missing from several of my music reference books, Hahn is beginning to obtain the acclaim his music so richly deserves. Venezuelan by birth, from Caracas, and Parisian-bred from the age of three (in the booklet Léon Parsons gives the age as two), Hahn later became a naturalised French citizen.

Hahn was active in the Belle Époque era, the so-called ‘Golden Age’ which centred on Paris around 1880 until the start of the First World War in 1914. Music writer Brian Zeger wrote ‘Hahn’s music is as quintessentially French as one can find.’ Yet for many decades outside France it has been solely his mélodies (French art songs) which hold key place in his output and have given Hahn’s music a firm foothold in the repertoire. Written when he was a mere thirteen years old, Hahn’s setting of a Victor Hugo text Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings) quickly become famous and was recorded by world famous artists including Dame Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland. Today it is no surprise that Hahn’s best known mélodies are L’heure exquise (The exquisite hour) and À Chloris (To Chloris), both enchanting works.

The fiftieth anniversary of Hahn’s death, which fell in 1997, produced a number of welcome recordings of his music, most of which were albums of mélodies. Several key albums which have surely helped to establish Hahn’s reputation as a composer of note include: Ciboulette, a three act operetta featuring Mady Mesplé, Nicolai Gedda and José van Dam on EMI; ‘La Belle Epoque - Songs of Renaldo Hahn’ sung by Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) accompanied by Roger Vignoles for Sony and the chamber music album of the Piano Quintet and String Quartets from Quatuor Parisii on Naïve. More recently, Bru Zane in 2019 released a set of Hahn’s Complete Songs performed by Tassis Christoyannis (baritone) and Jeff Cohen (piano) (review).

In Europe, the arts including music composition based on Romantic literary sources, have for centuries held a fascination for exotic subjects, namely, the Near, Middle and Far East - often collectively known as the Orient. Some examples of orientalism from the Baroque/Classical era which spring quickly to mind are the operas: Purcell The Indian Queen; Vivaldi Montezuma; Handel Giulio Cesare in Egitto; Haydn L’incontro improvviso; Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Rossini L’italiana in Algeri. Inevitably, the musical stage works would comprise the characteristic ethnic and gender stereotyping found acceptable by audiences at the time.

Focusing on musical theatre including opera with orientalist themes from the mid-nineteenth century, they typically involved territories under a particular European country’s colonial control and Hahn’s opera L’Île du rêve (Isle of Dreams) clearly falls into this category. Extremely popular, too, with their librettos set in the Orient, were the English musical comedies: Gilbert and Sullivan The Mikado; Frederick Norton Chu Chin Chow and Sydney Jones The Geisha. Other important works of oriental character are the German language operettas by Franz Lehár e.g. Das Land des Lächelns and in Italian opera Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot.

France was also a country whose musical theatre responded enthusiastically to oriental topics which remained in vogue for several decades. One unidentified critic described the Paris Opéra as an ‘open bazaar’ full of the wonders of the orient. Notable examples of French Romantic opera with exotic settings and themes of the orient include: Félicien David Lalla-Roukh (prem. 1862); Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles (prem. 1863); Meyerbeer L’Africaine (prem. 1865); Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila (prem. 1877); Delibes Lakmé (prem. 1883); Mascagni Iris (prem. 1898 ) and Massenet with Le roi de Lahore (prem. 1877), Hérodiade (prem. 1881), Esclarmonde (prem. 1889) and Thaïs (prem. 1894). Hahn too was also enamoured by oriental themes writing the opera L’Île du rêve (Isle of Dreams) set on the Pacific island of Tahiti, an exotic locale then part of French Polynesia.

French author Pierre Loti’s autobiographical novel Le Mariage de Loti (1880) was enjoying huge popularity. The novel Le Mariage de Loti was adapted by the partnership of Georges Hartmann and André Alexandre who prepared the libretto they originally titled L’Île des rêves then changed to L’Île du rêve. Very simply the storyline of L’Île du rêve tells of the affaire du coeur between French navy officer Lt. Georges de Kerven (aka Lotti) and Mahénu a Vahiné (a young Tahitian girl) who is left heartbroken and abandoned when Loti is compelled to report back to France. Not surprisingly, one is reminded of the plot to Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly which was also based on another Pierre Loti novel, produced as an autobiographical journal Madame Chrysanthème (1887) and this time set in Japan.

Hahn was a mere ten when he entered the Paris Conservatoire as a pupil and his teachers included Jules Massenet, Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saëns. Taking Hahn for composition was Massenet, such an influential figure in the Parisian music world. As Hahn was not French-born, he was ineligible from entering the prestigious Prix de Rome. By way of compensation for Hahn’s exclusion, Massenet tasked his student with writing the score to L’Île du rêve, a project authorised by Loti’s music publisher Hartmann who had co-written the libretto. In effect Hahn was set a ‘trial piece’ which he regarded as ‘holiday homework’ which, if successful, would give him the opportunity of having the opera premiered, a reward normally earmarked for the Prix de Rome winner. So, with Massenet’s patronage, Hahn was still only seventeen when in 1891 he commenced his opera L’Île du rêveIdylle Polynésienne; the final act was completed in 1893 and the opera revised in 1894.

Reportedly, when Massenet read through Hahn’s score the mentor acclaimed to his prodigy, ‘To have written that, you must be a poet’ and declared L’Île du rêve ready for staging. Then came a stumbling block as Léon Carvalho director of the Opéra-Comique company turned down Hahn’s work. When Carvalho died in 1897, Albert Carré the new director both accepted and programmed the score for his inaugural season. Hahn, now twenty-three years old, finally saw L’Île du rêve premiered in March 1898 by the Opéra-Comique at its temporary home, the Salle du Châtelet in Paris, with its music director André Messager conducting. L’Île du rêve is short at around an hour and as part of a double-bill of operas, preceding the work on the night was Delibes’ Le roi l'a dit.

The premiere of L’Île du rêve attracted many dignitaries, notably the exiled Queen Natalie of Serbia. Although the audience reaction was generally favourable, it attracted criticism from the press, some of which was scathing. Much vitriol was thrown at Hahn personally which was in the main put down to jealousy because he was an unknown, foreign composer with non-French status who had not won the Prix de Rome. A rumour also circulated that Hahn had paid 80,000 francs to have his work staged. Criticism was aimed not just at Hahn, as both Massenet and Carré were targeted too. A run of just nine performances was the outcome for L’Île du rêve and since then only a handful of revivals have occurred, followed by a concert staging for this the work’s premiere recording.

Quebecoise French-Canadian soprano Hélène Guilmette sings the principal role of Mahénu a 16-year-old Tahitian girl. Guilmette is recognised for her French language repertoire, particularly for roles in Gounod, Massenet and Poulenc operas. Recorded in 2014 at Montréal, Guilmette excels with her accomplished recital album L'heure rose - Musiques de Femmes with pianist Martin Dubé on Analekta. Guilmette sings the role of her namesake Hélène in Saint-Saëns’s opera Le timbre d'argent, released earlier this year by Bru Zane. Here, Guilmette reveals an engagingly drawn portrait of the decorous Mahénu, especially her girlish enthusiasm and vulnerability. She has an appealing voice which radiates alertness and her silvery tone has a fresh feel and is not over-bright. Guilmette easily reaches her upper register which she uses adeptly; when it is under pressure her vibrato becomes noticeable but that does not distract. Some slight tonal unevenness aside, this is a most engaging performance and Guilmette is a soprano certainly worth looking out for.

In the role of French naval officer, Lt. Georges de Kerven (Loti) is Cyrille Dubois, a tenor from the Normandy region of France. Greatly experienced in the opera house Dubois has also made a number of recordings of largely French repertoire including a recent recital album of Lili and Nadia Boulanger Mélodies with pianist Tristan Raës on Aparté.

Naval officer Georges has been renamed as Loti by the playful Tahitian girls. Loti, the lovestruck suitor has the only real aria in the entire score with Ne plus te voir (Never to see you again) from Act 3. At less than two minutes, in comparison to its quality the aria is, regrettably, ridiculously short. On fine form, Dubois responds decisively with a ravishing performance overflowing with passion of utmost sincerity. Throughout Dubois’ agreeable voice has pleasing warmth and I like the way he strives for accuracy with the import of the text. Some strain in the higher reaches here, I believe actually adds to the intensity of emotion. Unquestionably the highlight of the work is Mahénu and Loti’s Act 1 love scene with the duet Restons encore (Let us stay longer) where the blazing passion and blend of voices make the hair stand up on the back of the neck.

French mezzo-soprano Anaïk Morel sings the role of Oréna, a Tahitian princess. I notice the Lyon-born Morel is much in demand for the title roles in Bizet’s Carmen and Massenet’sWerther. Morel’s solo recording of Vierne’s cycle of Verlaine settings Spleens et Détresses, accompanied by Mūza Rubackytė on Brilliant Classics, is highly enjoyable. Morel’s smartly attractive voice has authority and maturity. Her mezzo-soprano is reasonably rich in tone although there is some minor wavering of pitch and, although evident, her vibrato does not detract from my satisfaction with her Oréna. 

French tenor Artavazd Sargsyan is a member of the Opera Studio of Opéra Bastille, Paris and his major stage roles have included Delibes’ Lakmé and Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. He has appeared on a number of opera releases, and standing out is his recital album with pianist Paul Montag of Félicien David Mélodies on Passavant Music. Here, Sargsyan takes the roles of Chinese merchant Tsen-Lee and the First Officer, displaying his smooth, clear, attractive tone and allowing his personality to shine through. He has an impressive range and can fluently jump up to haute-contre top notes where he seems entirely comfortable.

Téria and courtier Faïtmana are not large roles, yet French soprano Ludivine Gombert treats them seriously. Adept at bringing character to her roles, she has a strong, flexible and attractive voice but some unsteadiness is also revealed. Doing all that is asked of her, Gombert is able to leap swiftly and effectively up to her higher notes. Classy French baritone Thomas Dolié does splendidly with the minor roles of old Taïrapa, naval officer Henri and the Second Officer. Rich and expressive in tone with first class diction, Dolié demonstrates surety in his upper range.

Bru Zane has undoubtedly gathered a splendid cast of singers with French as their first language, breathing fresh life into Hahn’s early creation. The contribution of the twenty-strong Chœur du Concert Spirituel, excelling with singing of unity and character, is hard to fault. Hahn’s atmospheric, lyrical and often sensuous writing seems to suit conductor Hervé Niquet down to the ground and his tempi have a model feeling to them. Owing to the broad range of music it plays, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester is such a versatile ensemble, demonstrating here its affinity with Hahn’s sound-world.

This was recorded earlier this year, the product of rehearsal, a live concert staging and a patching session at the Prinzregententheater, Munich. Clear sound and a satisfying balance between solo voices, chorus and orchestra have been achieved by the sound engineers. In addition, the warm atmosphere which surely enhances the work has been captured beautifully here. Given the live audience element to this recording, there is no extraneous sound to worry about and applause has not been retained. Bru Zane’s now trademark top-drawer presentation of the CD booklet has been successfully maintained. The hardback book, a bilingual edition in French and English, includes a full libretto, synopsis and three helpful essays, plus an interview Léon Parsons had with Hahn just prior to the opera’s premiere and correspondence between Hahn and his friend Édouard Risler.

While not making any elevated claims for greatness L’Île du rêve is eminently enjoyable from the first note to the last. Reynaldo Hahn’s youth when writing it is no barrier, as this is a beautiful opera which many mature composers would be proud to have written.

Michael Cookson

Opéra français (French opera) CD-book series of Bru Zane, Volume 25
1 CD / book – 127 pages (texts & libretto) – Bilingual edition (English and French)
Limited and numbered edition of 3,000
Book Contents:
Palazzetto Bru Zane team – ‘A deserted island
Vincent Giroud – ‘A Polynesian idyll in the time of Gauguin
Léon Parsons – ‘An interview with Reynaldo Hahn
Arthur Pougin – ‘The evening of the premiere
In the composer’s workshop – ‘Correspondence between Hahn and friend Édouard Risler

Track Listing
Act 1
1. Scène: Ô pays de Bora-Bora (Mahénu, chœur)
2. Scène: Quel est ce bruit? Alerte! (Chœur)
3. Scène: Ô belle enfant, vers qui montent mes plaintes (Mahénu, Tsen-Lee, chœur)
4. Scène: Amis, voilà le salon de l’île du rêve (Oréna, Mahénu, Loti, chœur)
5. Scène: Que ton chagrin soit bercé par nos chants! (Mahénu, Loti, chœur)
6. Duo: Enfant, demeure (Mahénu, Loti, chœur)
7. Duo (suite): Restons encor, les paupières mi-closes (Mahénu, Loti)
Act 2
8. Prélude
9. Scène: Or, Adam que venait de bercer un long rêve (Taïrapa, Tsen-Lee, chœur)
10. Scène: Trêve de paroles! (Mahénu, Loti, chœur)
11. Scène: Cherche à qui cet homme ressemble (Mahénu, Téria, Loti)
12. Duo: Jalouse!... (Mahénu, Loti, Taïrapa, chœur)
Act 3
13. Prélude et Chœur: Tihi ’ura teie (Mahénu, chœur)
14. Scène: Hélas! Nous te quittons demain (Henri, Faïmana, 2 officiers)
15. Scène: J’ai tressé pour ma couronne (Mahénu, Loti)
16. Arioso: Ne plus te voir, ô ma petite case (Loti, chœur)
17. Scène: La princesse! (Oréna, Loti, Mahénu)
18. Duo: C’est moi, chère petite (Mahénu, Loti)
19. Scène: Non, Mahénu... (Oréna, Mahénu, Téria, Taïrapa, chœur)

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