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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La Belle Hélène

Felicity Lott Hélène
Yann Beuron Paris
Michel Sénéchal Ménélas
Laurent Naouri Agamemnon
François Le Roux Calchas
Marie-Ange Todorovich Oreste
Eric Huchet Achille
Alain Gabriel Ajax premier
Laurent Alvaro Ajax deuxième
Hjørdis Thïbault Bacchis
Magali Léger Parthénis
Stéphanie d'Oustrac Loena
Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre
Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble
Marc Minkowski
Rec October 2000, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5 45477-2 0 [2CDs: total time 118.11]

Offenbach's popularity in Paris centred particularly on his witty, brilliant satires on classical subjects. The music has an irrepressible gaiety and melodiousness allied to a pointed wit. Ruling over his own theatre, the Bouffes-Parisiens, he wrote for relatively small forces rather than the larger ensemble found at the Opéra, but he did not object if circumstances allowed for the opportunity for more ambition.

What makes this new recording of La belle Hélène interesting, then, is that it has a sharpness and directness which bear the mark of authenticity. Minkowski is a specialist in this repertoire and the whole performance benefits from his understanding of the issues involved. The whole experience benefits from the clarity of texture and dynamic; the singers can always be heard and the instrumental lines are nicely pointed too.

Another strength of this recording is how dramatic it feels. This no doubt relates to an acclaimed production which was staged at the Châtelet in Paris during the autumn of 2000 (which was filmed and can, it seems, be viewed on the Internet). The pacing seems right at every stage, and the relationship between dialogue and music is also highly effective.

In these circumstances the singers seem able to give of their best, the standard set by the opening couplets sung by Marie-Ange Todorovich as Orestes (who is very good throughout). But the whole cast is strong individually and effective as a team; and if any music for the stage requires teamwork it is surely the operettas of Offenbach.

What of the leading role, sung by Dame Felicity Lott? She has developed a real affinity for French music, but of course she misses the native inflections of the language. However, her musical judgement and vocal prowess are renowned, and she did take Paris by storm in her live performances. The quality of her voice is very special. So too is that of Yann Beuron as Pâris, whose use of rubato is subtly encouraged by the phrasing of Minkowski. The edition recorded here also includes a lullaby for this character which has never been recorded before.

The accompanying notes are detailed enough to discuss the relationship between different editions of the score. The author is Jean-Claude Yon, who has written an extensive study of Offenbach's life and music.

Many regard La belle Hélène as Offenbach most enjoyable operetta. This recording does much to encourage that view.

Terry Barfoot

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