Thursday 5 November 2020

L’Île du rêve: Reynaldo Hahn's first opera proves to be a charming lyrical interlude

Reynaldo Hahn L’Île du rêve ; Helen Guilmette, Cyrille Dubois, Munchner Rundfunkorchester, Herve Niquet
Reynaldo Hahn L’Île du rêve ; Hélène Guilmette, Cyrille Dubois, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Hervé Niquet

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Hahn's first opera, premiered at the Opera Comique, proves to be full of lyrical charm and effortless style

Reynaldo Hahn's larger scale works are still not very well known and it is on his songs that performers concentrate, though his operetta Ciboulette gets an occasional outing. A child prodigy and relatively long-lived (1874 to 1947) he remained conservative, his music did not seem to keep up with the times. L’Île du rêve is his first opera, begun when he was 18. On this disc from Palazzetto Bru Zane, Hahn's L’Île du rêve gets its first recording with Hélène Guilmette and Cyrille Dubois, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, conductor Hervé Niquet.

Born in Caracas of a German-Jewish father and a Venezuelan mother, Reynaldo Hahn's foreign nationality barred him from entering the Prix de Rome, even though he was a protégé of Massenet's. L’Île du rêve was something of a consolation prize, and when Hahn completed it in 1894, Massenet was sufficiently impressed to try and get it staged. Some nifty manoeuvring on Massenet's part led to the work's premiered in 1898 at the Opéra comique. Though there was a strong cast, the work failed to make an impression and though there were further performances during Hahn's lifetime, it was hardly a roaring success.

It is a short piece, lasting around an hour yet it is in three acts and concerns  a deep topic. The effect of visiting naval officers on the inhabitants of exotic lands, in this case a Polynesian island. There are clear links to Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Delibes' Lakme here, and in the fascination with things exotic to Bizet's Les pecheurs de Perles. These links are clear because the libretto to L’Île du rêve is based on the writings of Pierre Loti, the pseudonym of Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850 – 1923), a French naval officer whose exotic novels were a key element in the popularity of orientalism at the time.

The opera is based on Loti's 1880 novel Le mariage de Loti, in turn based on real life - a visiting naval officer sets up home with a young native girl on a Pacific island, but when he leaves she falls into a dissolute decline. The opera, however, omits the depressing final act (though it was considered), and there is no big farewell and suicide, the hero simply floats away with the heroine convinced to stay by her friends. Though another island girl has gone mad having learned her formed Naval lover has died.

Yet, in many ways Hahn was well-placed to write about the topic. For a start, he was himself an exotic in Paris. Half Latin-American, half German, Jewish, homosexual, despite his adoption of French language, manner and customs. And indeed, the music on this is not embarrassingly exotic, it is straightforward Hahn in his most lyrical mode. He writes expressively for the voices, but with a song-writer's concern for clarity of diction and fluidity of line. There are few, if any, arias and the whole work feels like and extended duet for the heroine, Mahenu (Helene Guilmette) and hero Georges de Kerven, dit Loti (Cyrille Dubois).

In many ways, it is an interlude. The piece hardly starts, we simply find ourselves eavesdropping on island, and at the end Loti floats away leaving Mahenu's heart-broken. There are no real consequences, and no darkness, this is truly L’Île du rêve. 

Helene Guilmette and Cyrille Dubois are both beautifully stylish leads, both able to spin the sort of flexible line that Hahn calls for, and they are ably supported by the rest of the cast though none of the supporting characters really gets enough air-time to make strong impression except as background material deftly sketched in. Herve Niquet controls everything with a light hand, and the performance succeeds wonderfully on Hahn's own terms.

Listening to this, the confidence with which the young man created this charming lyrical interlude and you wonder where his talent could go next and perhaps that remained the problem.

Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) - L’Île du rêve (1898)
Mahenu - Helene Guillmette
Loti - Cyrille Dubois
Orena - Anaik Morel
Tsen-Lee/Officer - Artavazd Sargsyan
Faimana/Teria - Ludivine Gombert
Tairapa/Henri/Officer - Thomas Dolie
Choeur du Concert Spirituel
Munchner Rundfunkorchester
Herve Nique (conductor)
Recorded 24 and 26 January 2020, Prinzregententheater, Munich
PALAZZO BRU ZANE 1Cd [1:00:29]

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