Reynaldo Hahn: L’Ile du rêve
Hélène Guilmette (Mahénu), Cyrille Dubois (Georges de Kerven “Loti”), Anaïk Morel (Oréna), Artavazd Sargsyan (Tsen-Lee/First Officer), Ludivine Gombert (Téria/Faïmana), Thomas Dolié (Taïrapa/Henri/Second Officer), Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Chœur du Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet (conductor)
Recording: Prinzregententheater, Munich, Germany (January 24 and 26, 2020) – 60’39
Bru Zane BZ1042 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in French and English
"Rhythm is the pulse of music and its secret heartbeat” Reynaldo Hahn
…and in the most inimitable way, Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) had these secret jewels that sighed with color, soul and shading. Though best known for his operetta, Ciboulette
and his mélodies, the Venezuelan-born French composer had a distinctly independent style, holding on to his own Late Romanticism with bits of Classicism and Debussy, and, in this instance, suffusions of Baroque. Being of foreign nationality, Reynaldo Hahn was never allowed to enter the Prix de Rome and considered an outsider. When L’Ile du rêve premiered at the Opéra-Comique (with the help of Jules Massenet) on March 23, 1898, the nastiness of the press was based more upon jealousy since Hahn created this score at the young age of 23, contrary to the audience's warm reception.
Referred to as an idylle polynésienne, L’Ile du rêve is loosely based on the semi-autobiographical 1880 novel by Pierre Loti, Rarahu [or Le Mariage de Loti]. While L’Ile du rêve clocks in at slightly over an hour, it contains three acts and is strikingly tight in its construction. Hahn's pocketful of motifs represent the half-dozen characters, succinctly stepping forward at the appropriate moment to effectively engage. Although the work is placed within the imaginary island of “Faatüa“, its indisputable we’re in Tahiti, and that of Bora-Bora.
Hahn’s synopsis is a soft anthropological Elysium of the South Seas…a sort of miscellany of Melville’s Typee and Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, entwining a French naval officer and a Tahitian woman. Such exotica also reflects upon Gauguin’s beauties while retaining close connections to Delibes’ Lakmé, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific and The King and I, Madama Butterly
and Lehár’s East/West tensions situated within Das Land des Lächelns.
After her 2019 success in L’Etoile, Hélène Guilmette nestles herself inside the role of Mahénu without overabundance of dramatization. Set upon successions of harp roulades, we succumb to the lyrically bittersweet melody, “O pays de Bora-Bora”, as Hahn’s suave opening music pervades the air. L’Ile du rêve progresses with comfortable tessituras and maintains respectable civility in the theatrics department with possible exception of Cyrille Dubois whose character, Georges de Kerven [alias “Loti”], is airy but emphatically apropos. Though virtually devoid of “set” numbers, Hahn manages to deftly carry the plotline forward with economy and verve.
Bathing by a waterfall, the female choral remarks with Mahénu circle back to Carmen (Act I) in a nonosecond, but lighter absurdities are inculcated by introducing Artavazd Sargsyan as the obnoxious Chinese merchant, Tsen-Lee. Set upon fluttering flutes, M. Sargsyan's portrayal, while fleeting, is impish and fitting. Prior to the end of Act I, the Mahénu/Loti love interest is already in full bloom, similar to the amorous connection in South Pacific’s “Happy Talk” featuring Liat and Joe Cable.
Thomas Dolié gives profundity to the score as Mahénu's adoptive father, Taïrapa. As found in James Michener’s Hawaii, Westernized religion wends its way into French Polynesia with the sage advisor reading from the Bible in Act II. Here, Hahn beautifully resorts to Handelian music, giving the idyll more of a saintly investiture. A native landscape dwells in Act II and in Act III's closing bars by insertion of a Tahitian chant to superbly contrast the French melodic lines.
Princess Oréna (Anaïk Morel) is the moral compass and human stabilizer, giving Loti advice about when he should tell Mahénu of his imminent departure. Years earlier, Loti’s brother, Rouéri, visited the island, only to return to France and leave behind the now elderly woman, Téria: Jules Massenet’s
Le Mage had a toehold on the opera during Téria's anxious, inquisitive reminiscences of Loti’s brother. Agitation begins to growl but with reserve. Ludivine Gombert’s exemplary lower tessitura and jagged vibrato helps color in the details of the aging woman, unaware of the demise of her husband back in France, only to let loose when answers are finally spoken. Furthermore, the music Reynaldo Hahn created at the conclusion is both touching and crushing.
L’Ile du rêve is a fragrant enchantment and exquisitely tendered by a propitious young man. Reynaldo Hahn deserves a broader outreach, and in this instance, we’re rewarded with this uniquely exceptional score.
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