“Melodrame” – spoken drama over musical accompaniment – may not be a uniquely French genre, but it’s one that few nations have embraced as enthusiastically. Could it be this incomprehension, or suspicion, of form that has kept Stravinsky’s 1934 Perséphone all but out of the repertoire? Because the score’s ravishing, almost indecent beauty is beyond argument, as this disc by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Finnish National Opera makes abundantly clear.

Perséphone sits somewhere at the junction of ballet, opera, cantata and tone-poem – a fusion that sounds awkward, but which yields a beautifully formal, stylised neo-classical drama. André Gide’s rather heady text tells the story of Perséphone’s descent to the Underworld. A retelling with distinctly Christian overtones does away with the heroine’s abduction by Pluto. Instead her journey is voluntary, prompted by pity for souls trapped in eternal darkness.

Scored for speaker (Perséphone, Pauline Cheviller), tenor (Andrew Staples as the priest Eumolpus), adult and children’s choruses and orchestra, this short work is thickly layered with colour, relishing the contrast between the darkness of Hades and the fecundity and light of earth above. Is there a moment of eerier beauty than the chilly, hypnotic writing for strings and women’s voices (later coloured by oboe and flute) that conjures the scent of the Narcissus that transports Perséphone down to the Underworld? Or more scabrous music for brass and bassoon to mark her arrival? As for the framing scenes of nymphs and meadows – Boticelli-intricate with woodwind detail under the silky wash of women’s voices.

Salonen walks the finest of lines, allowing the lusher moments space to bloom without straying into excess, pacing this slight drama with care. Staples’ cool, clean tenor keeps things matter-of-fact, his efficient delivery setting up an exciting friction with Cheviller’s rhapsodic delivery. The orchestra is nicely balanced, woodwinds creeping out of the thick undergrowth and into the sunlight for solos, matched by delicate singing from both choruses. A trip to hell has rarely sounded so appealing.

Composer: Stravinsky
Composition: Perséphone
Performer: Andrew Staples t, Pauline Cheviller actor, Finnish National Opera/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Catalogue Number: Pentatone PTC5186688

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