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Offenbach, La Belle Hélène: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera, Coliseum, 3.4.2006 (CC)

It is just this lighter side of the operatic life that ENO excels at. Back in 2004 their Mikado provided an evening of pure delight - now it is the turn of Offenbach's La belle Hélène, with its title unusually given in the original language (the production, of course, is in English). But this was an evening made even more special by the presence of Dame Felicity Lott as Helen, Queen of Sparta (Lott returns to ENO for the first time since 1988). Directing is Laurent Pelly – and this production was originally seen in Paris in 2000.

There is more than a touch of the 'Carry On' about this Offenbach, including come crushingly cringeworthy jokes from all sides (I loved the reference to the gossip magazine, 'Omega Kappa' – and then there was the line, 'Sorry, I'm a bit Homer-phobic'; and how about the idea of a 'Troy-boy'?). The production seems multi-leveled. It would be interesting to go back just to see how much I'd missed, a bit like revisiting the 'Airplane' movies so that you can watch the other jokes that are going on in the background. The appearance of a tour guide on stage had an unexpected resonance – ENO has in the past staged Glass’ Akhnaten, which ends with a set of contemporary American tourists, used in a very different way. Only one caveat – there were a couple of moments when I had to ask myself how many more jokes can you get out of Achilles and his heel.

All this, of course, would be worthless if the evening flopped musically. Nothing could have been further from the truth, though. The chorus lived up to its reputation, as slick as could be and evidently having as much fun as the audience. Two soloists made the comedy zing – Steven Page's Calchas and Bonaventure Bottone's superb Menelaus (more than a hint of the Brian Blessed here). Toby Spence was a virile Paris, the object of Helen's affections, his voice only occasionally below the tonal strength required. His Act II aria was a particular highlight.

Of course, the star was the much-loved Flott (as she is affectionately known). Lott's timing is the result of a long and distinguished career and is absolutely faultless. At one point I did wonder if she ever studied with Kenneth Williams for the more OTT moments (her cries of 'Vanity, vanity vanity' were remarkably close to that 'infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me' line). Her voice, it is true, is not the youngest any more, but it is in quite remarkable shape. From the rest of the cast (and this was a real ensemble piece), Parthenis and Leona (Amy Freston and Claire Wilde) were cartoon characters, delightful as two courtesans.

The production uses a wide variety of techniques – from shadow-play to the most astonishing human sheep (don't ask – just go to see it if you can). The space is expertly used – never crowded – and I just loved the Greek beach of the final act with its signs actually in Greek (although I'm not sure if there is a word 'Kefezaxaroplasteion' – it means coffee and sweet shop, I think – but I'm probably wrong and it doesn't really matter anyway).

Superb. ENO at its very best.

Colin Clarke





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