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S & H Opera Review

Offenbach, La Belle Hélène, Théàtre du Châtelet, Paris, December 17, 2001

There is no better place to be with your loved one this holiday season than at the Théàtre du Châtelet for the reprise of their widely praised production of La Belle Hélène. The Royal Opera has the over-sober Parsifal and the Metropolitan has the over-wrought Die Frau ohne Schatten. Even the Paris Opéra has only a threadbare La Bohème and an over-long Khovanschina. This promises much more - an evening of high merriment combined with sophisticated artistry.

Described by the Penguin Opera Guide as "deliciously immortal" (which I first read as "deliciously immoral," which also describes this work) this opera is a perfectly constructed, fun-filled farce that is given a clever and brilliant production. Playing until January 5, it won the critic’s award for best production in France last year and the team of director Laurent Pelly and conductor Marc Minkowski again succeeded with a tasty crème brulée of musical delights.

Minkowski, with his own band, Les Musiciens du Louvre, in the pit, conducts this work with all the care and devotion as if it were Mozart. His talents as a conductor were never in doubt and his evident pleasure in bringing this particular piece to the stage engages the entire troupe. He has often worked with Laurent Pelly and both have created some memorable performances at the Opéra as well as the festivals of Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg. Pelly’s clever and fast-paced stage business resonates perfectly with the irreverent wit of the composer and his masterful librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The evening is further distinguished by high-energy, inventive and whimsical ballet sequences (one with nuzzling, dancing sheep) by Laura Scozzi.

Singing the role of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is the splendid Swedish soprano, Katarina Karnéus. She had the almost impossible job of taking over a role so masterfully played last year by Dame Felicity Lott. She did not try to match the suavity and grace of her predecessor but instead emphasized her pulsating youth. On the first night, her Act I aria, "Amours divins" was a bit tentative but she soon fell in character and joined in the infectious fun on stage.

Except for the title role, all the other cast members are French and testify to the growing importance of their conservatory system in producing fine talent. These young singers came up from the ranks of Baroque performance for the most part and deliver the music with clarity and precision. Tenor Yann Beuron was engaging in the role of Paris and the indefatigable tenor Michel Sénéchal – in his sixth decade on stage - was perfect as Ménélas, the old husband and King of Sparta.

In the role of the grand augur Calchas, Francois Le Roux wielded his powerful baritone in a futile effort to maintain a level of sanity on stage. Mezzo Stéphanie d’Oustrac was convincing as the over-heated nephew, Oreste and Gilles Ragon, Alain Gabriel and Laurent Alvaro merrily camped it up as the three kings, Achille, Ajax I and Ajax II. The Greek chorus, here the Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre, were dressed-down tourists following around their guide who held high a sign reading "Odyssey Tours."

As a holiday musical treat, instead of another Messiah, this is a temptation nearly impossible to resist. If you cannot get away to Paris, the DVD of this production (recorded last year with Miss Lott) is now available. It is one of those all too rare evenings when somehow, magically, the assembled forces unite to create a luminescent operatic jewel.

Frank Cadenhead

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