> OFFENBACH La Belle Helene TDK DVD [FC]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La Belle Hélène

Helen, Queen of Sparta: Dame Felicity Lott
Paris, son of King Priam, King of Troy: Yann Beuron
Menelaus, King of Sparta: Michel Sénéchal
Agamemnon, King of Argos: Laurent Naouri
Calchas, High Priest of Jupiter: François Le Roux
Orestes, son of Agamemnon: Marie-Ange Torodovitch
Achilles, King of Phthiotis: Eric Huchet
Ajax I, King of Salamis: Alain Gabriel
Ajax II, King of Locris: Laurent Alvaro
Bacchis, Helen’s attendant: Hjördis Thébalult
Leoena, a courtesan: Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Parthoenis, a courtesan: Magali Léger
Philocome, Calchas’s attendant (speaking role): José Canalès
Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble
Choir of the Musiciens du Louvre
Conductor: Marc Minkowski
Costumes and Stage Design: Laurent Pelly
TDK DV-OPLBH , [127 min. (opera), 26 min. (interviews)]

In response to my mention of the reprise of La Belle Hélène now at the Théàtre Châtelet in Paris on my opera internet group, a respondent wrote back sarcastically, "is this the "brilliant" production I saw where everyone was in beach chairs?" A brief look in the Penguin Opera Guide confirms the following: "Act III: The royals have gone to the beach for their holidays." Finally, it was Offenbach and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who scandalized the writer, not the current staging. I am sure they would be delighted to know they are still annoying the haute bourgeois.

As one who has spent his entire adult life steering clear of Offenbach – other than those unavoidable tunes in common coin – I must admit to being entirely seduced by this operetta and its dazzling production recorded on this DVD. I was entertained by the lively, sophisticated wit: the parodies of grand opera, the skewering of the stories of the Greek Gods. Then there is the story of Hélène herself - an unsatisfied wife looking for love - which is touching in its humor and truth. Laurent Pelly deals with these themes with a perceptiveness that belies his youth. He has updated some references to Belle Époque events and added modern visual elements (the Greek chorus in this opera is a band of dressed-down tourists following a guide holding high a sign reading "Odyssey Tours.") But the overriding genius here is in the irreverent wit of the libretto and in the impossible-to-resist music of Offenbach.

Minkowski, with his own band, Les Musiciens du Louvre, in the pit, conducts this work with all the care and devotion as if it were Mozart. His talent as a conductor is now a matter of record and his evident pleasure in bringing this particular piece to the stage engages the entire troupe. The production is further distinguished by high-energy, inventive and whimsical ballet sequences (one with nuzzling, dancing sheep) by Laura Scozzi. Acclaimed – and recorded – during last holiday season at the Théàtre du Châtelet, it won the French critics’ award as best production last year.

Singing the role of Hélène, the most beautiful woman in the world, is soprano Felicity Lott in a role of a lifetime. Masterfully played, no one is her equal in suavity and grace she brought to the role. Her voice, more used to Strauss than Offenbach, made the adjustment perfectly and her comic style and charm made her the ideal leading lady. Except for the title role, all the other cast members are French and testify to the growing importance of their conservatory system in producing fine talent. These young singers came up from the ranks of Baroque performance for the most part and deliver the music with clarity and precision. The clear and light tenor of Yann Beuron worked well for the role of Paris and the unstoppable tenor legend Michel Sénéchal – in his sixth decade on stage - was perfect as Ménélas, the old husband and King of Sparta.

In the role of the grand augur Calchas, François Le Roux wielded his handsome and powerful baritone in a futile effort to maintain a level of sanity on stage. Mezzo Marie-Ange Torodovitch is the over-heated nephew, Oreste and Eric Huchet, Alain Gabriel and Laurent Alvaro merrily camp it up as the three kings, Achille, Ajax I and Ajax II. The excellent French baritone Laurent Naouri is Agamemnon.

It is one of those all too rare evenings when somehow, magically, the assembled forces unite to create an operatic jewel. It is a performance that bears repeated viewing – a classic work with a staging that reveals something new each time you watch it. It has subtitles available in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian and excellent and very alive Stereo, AC3 Digital 5.0 or DTS 5.0 sound and letterbox format. Also included are interviews with Dame Felicity, Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly and Jean-Pierre Brossman, the Châtelet director. The booklet, in English, German and French, gives the timings and plot synopsis.

Frank Cadenhead

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