Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La belle Hélène
Opera buffa in three acts
ARTHAUS DVD VIDEO 100 086
Subtitle languages in English and German [124
Helen, Queen of Sparta
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
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