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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La belle Hélène
Opera buffa in three acts
ARTHAUS DVD VIDEO 100 086 Subtitle languages in English and German [124 mins]

Helen, Queen of Sparta………..Vesselina Kasarova
Paris, Son of King Priam………Deon van der Walt
Calchas, High Priest of Jupiter.. Carlos Chausson
Meneleus, King of Sparta…….. Volker Vogel
Agamemnon, King of Argos…. Oliver Widmer
Orestes, son of Agamemnon…..Liliana Nichiteanu
Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House
Directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Jacques Offenbach was to Paris what Johann Strauss II was to Vienna. In fact Johann Strauss's work for the stage was inspired by Offenbach - and by competition with him.

Rossini honoured the French master of entertainment by nicknaming him the "Mozart of the Champs-Elysées".

Offenbach's light opera La Belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen) (1864), like his La Vie Parisienne (1866) and La Périchole (1868), offers a wry ironic look at the society of Napoleon III and the Second Empire. La Belle Hélène is the story of the beautiful Greek queen for whom the Trojan War was fought. But it concentrates on how Paris seduces her away from her boring old husband Meneleus. The opera is a satire on the vulgar, decadent Parisian high society of the day that cheerfully abandoned itself to every kind of sexual and moral license. This is done in a cheerful almost pantomime fashion with innuendo and farcical situations yet with considerable subtlety and finesse.

The visual elements of this DVD are quite sumptuous with sets and props of classical theatre with Greek columns and high vaulting dome interiors - and a large beach party complete with large sunshades for the concluding act. The costumes are often hilarious with Ajax I, King of Salamis and Ajax II, King of Locris, joined at the hip and wearing one costume as Siamese twins, Agamemnon wearing at one point what looks like a schoolgirl's gym slip. Most awesome of all is Helen's opening act gown that has a very full skirt with amour spelt in gigantic letters around the hem. The sense of pantomime is heightened with the employment of 'a principal boy', Liliana Nichiteanu as a spirited and lustful Orestes. Furthermore the sense of fun is heightened as the cast often wink at, and hold exchanges with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt who clearly enjoys himself tremendously, especially when Helen descends into the pit to flirt and dance with him!

I will not detail the ins and outs of the plot except to say that Paris is the perfect con artist deceiving all: the high priest Calchas, Meneleus, and Helen (most willing to be duped), not to mention all at court as he disguises himself first a shepherd and secondly as a soothsayer in his determination to seduce and carry off Helen. The patter songs all sparkle and the whole cast enter into the spirit of the preposterous story with enthusiasm and gusto. Vesselina Kasarova is a ravishing, coquettish, street-wise Helen one step ahead of everybody including, one guesses, Paris sung with heavy artfulness by a sturdy Deon van Der Walt. Carlos Chausson is a wickedly funny Calchas, willing to be duped to keep ahead in the politics of the oracle; and Volker Vogel is splendid as the thick and stupid Meneleus. The scene in which he catches Helen and Paris entwined and she twists his accusations back on him - "a gentleman always gives notice when he is returning" is particularly hilarious with the opera's big tune accompanying insults and accusations being hurled by all and sundry across the stage.

A delightful and very witty entertainment

Ian Lace

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