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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 Loti
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]

The indefatigable Bru Zane have continued their very valuable work in bringing into the light French operas which have lain buried for decades, if not centuries. This short opera by Hahn has been performed only a handful of times since its short first run in 1898, and all of those were in provincial French houses. My colleague Michael Cookson has already reviewed this CD and he included an admirably detailed summary of the work’s gestation and plot, so I will not repeat any of that here. Firstly, a brief response to the music itself. One of the problems with short pieces like this is that they simply do not fit in with the ways that opera houses work nowadays. With the possible exception of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, no short opera has kept a regular place in the repertoire apart from Cav and Pag. In fact, these have long been virtually a single entity, as demonstrated in the present Covent Garden staging where the pieces are performed as though they happened in the same village on a single day and characters make (silent) appearances in both operas. No-one quite knows what to do with short one-acters (though Hahn’s opera, despite lasting only an hour is, in fact, a three-acter). Hahn’s opera demonstrates one of the main problems: unless the situation is extremely concise, there is not room for proper musical or dramatic expansion. L’île du rêve is hardly a complex plot, but even so, there is enough to warrant a full length opera. At just an hour’s duration, Hahn cannot provide the emotional and dramatic substance to make us feel that we have more than skimmed the surface of the characters. There simply isn’t time for anything that could properly be called an aria or duet, or indeed any sustained writing. But the piece is what it is, and despite these reservations I found the music enchanting. Hahn was clearly very influenced by Gounod; L’île du rêve regularly reminded me of that composer.

One of the things that I particularly like about Bru Zane’s approach is that they use as many Francophone singers as possible. It has proven impossible to be precise about this as Bru Zane goes to the opposite extreme to what we often get with recital records today; there is not a word about any of the performers in the extensive book that comes with the CD. Artavazd Sargsyan, for example, I discovered via the internet, studied in Lille and Paris, but whether he is actually French I could not find out. I do think that the performers deserve better from Bru Zane. Whatever the case, all of them sound like they are singing their first language - something which has been a comparative rarity in sets of French opera from about 1960 onwards.

The principal female role is that of Mahénu, which is sung by Hélène Guilmette. Hers is a very attractive light soprano with only a slight loss of quality at the top. Her legato is good, and it is a shame that the music does not really give her any opportunity to shine. The tenor lead is Cyrille Dubois singing the French officer known as Loti. He has a lovely light tenor, with an effective touch of metal at the top when it is needed. I very much like his flicker vibrato which is almost like that of a tenor from the inter-war period. He is particularly effective in the character’s anguish near the end when he must leave Mahénu. The one slight disappointment is his legato. For example when he asks Mahénu whether she will continue to worship the gods of her childhood (tr.18), there are phrases that cry out for a seamless line (which their original singer, Edmond Clément, would certainly have given them), and Dubois lets us down somewhat.

The smaller roles are all well taken. Ludivine Gombert’s Téria has a nicely-contrasting, deeper timbre to Guilmette’s, and Thomas Dolié’s Taïrapa, though a little young-sounding for a father, has a pleasing light baritone and avoids making this religious character tedious. Artavazd Sargsyan characterises the Chinese suitor Tsen-Lee very well without resorting to caricature.

The chorus is very good, though their sound is definitely “choral society” rather than “opera chorus”. In a work like this, that is not any great drawback, but I wouldn’t want to hear them in anything much more red-blooded. The orchestra plays very well, though the one thing in this performance that really grates on me comes through them. The conductor Hervé Niquet makes the strings play without vibrato (no doubt for “authenticity”). Most of the time this is not intrusive, but in the legato lines of the music associated with Taïrapa I found their whining, constipated sound very unattractive. You may very well disagree entirely, this sort of thing is very fashionable nowadays, so I merely record my own reaction truthfully. In every other respect, however, Niquet’s conducting is excellent.

As always with Bru Zane, the production values are in a class of their own. The full libretto and translation plus five scholarly essays are of a quality barely even approached by any of the big companies now. Perhaps in future we might have some performer biographies?

So, was it worth the effort of resurrecting this piece? My answer is an unequivocal yes. Despite a few tiny caveats, I found the piece utterly enchanting. The assurance of its orchestration and harmony and its ability to capture the ambience of the story are simply a delight. The knowledge that Hahn was 17 when he started it and still only 20 when he finished is just astonishing.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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