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SEEN AND HEARD
UK OPERA REVIEW
Offenbach, La Belle Hélène :
Orchestra, chorus and soloists of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester/ Mark Shanahan. Bruntwood Theatre, Manchester 1.12. 2009 (RJF)
Directed by Stefan Janski
Set designer, Simon Rostrand
Costumes designer, Elaine Needham
Rossini called Offenbach ‘The Mozart of the Champs Elysées.’ Born Jacob Eberst in Cologne, the son of a jobbing Jewish fiddler cum music teacher, Offenbach revealed such early talent that his father made many sacrifices to send him to study in Paris. There he scraped a living as a jobbing cellist while composing in his spare time, he opened the miniscule Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens at the time of the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris,. Visitors to the exhibition flocked to hear his tuneful operettas, which fitted the mood of the country at that time like a glove. Premiered in December 1864, La Belle Hélène, was typical of its frivolous genre reflecting the decadence of France’s Second Empire which was to collapse like a pack of cards with the onset of the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris, and the fall of the Emperor Napoleon 3rd.
Like the story , the music is full of full of froth and verve. Mark Shanahan on the rostrum set an appropriately alert pace with well sprung rhythms that were picked up with consummate professionalism by the student orchestra with sonorous strings well to the fore. The students on stage included a chorus of over forty-five young and vibrant voices and bodies and all of them were up for Offenbach’s fun and frolics. I have seen professional choruses go well over the top in not dissimilar circumstances, but this performance in the magical hands of Stefan Janski, Head of Operatic Studies and the production’s Director, ensured there were no such problems. The college is immensely lucky to have had his sure and expert guidance behind all of its productions over the last twenty three years. He carefully channelled the obvious enjoyment and enthusiasm of all concerned, chorus and soloists alike, to ensure an outstanding performance in all respects.
A classical front gauze of God like statues for the overture, with a little walking on by Manelaus dragging a reluctant Heléne round a gallery, was followed by different sets for each of the three acts. The chorus were moved around skilfully, particularly in Act III, with deliberate but artfully concealed intent, while the soloists were always placed to give of their best in the important numbers; this was operatic direction of the highest order.
Helene Sherman (Hélène) and Sipho Fubesi (Paris)
Andrew Fellows as Calchas sang and acted very well. At first I was surprised to read that he had sung Sarastro in the past, since his voice sounded more smooth baritone than bass but in the last act he revealed more of his capacity for a strong lower register. Colin Brockie, a true bass and dressed as a sea captain with plenty of braid as befits Agamemnon, the King of Kings, showed much vocal promise whilst Elisabeth Karani, a third year undergraduate, donned white trousers and a hat of lower rank to sing Orestes, Agamemnon’s son. The courtesans Leonie and Leona both acted nicely as did the characterful kings of Salamis and Locrians. Hanna-Lisa Midwod-Kirchin was Hélène’s perfectly acted and sung working class accented maid; she is the cover for Sesto in next year’s Clemenza di Tito.
The pictures show something of the magnificent sets for Acts I and II, the swan bed being a perfect reference for Greek mythology. The set for the Act III frolics on the beach was simpler and dominated by a huge statue of Zeus complete with trident and with all of his physical assets unmistakeably to the fore. I found the 1930s type beachwear rather lacking inspiration in final act: the only slight quibbled in the whole production.
Like the rest of the full house audience I went home well satisfied and secure in the knowledge that the current students at RNCM have all the skills need to carry on its distinguished tradition. Further performances are scheduled for December 3rd, 10th and 12th at 7.15pm with a matinee at 3pm on Sunday 6th. Catch it if you can, you will not find a better show anywhere near Manchester this Christmas.
Robert J Farr
Pictures courtesy of the Royal Northern College of Music