> Jacques Offenbach - La Belle Hélène [AB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-80)
La Belle Héléne

Helen, Queen of Sparta - Dame Felicity Lott
Paris, King of Troy - Vann Beuron
Menelaus, King of Sparta - Michel Sénéchal
Agamemmon - Laurent Naouri
Calchas, High Priest - Francois Le Roux
Les Musiciens del Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
From the Théâtre Musical de Paris Châtelet - 2000
Sound LPCM Stereo; Dolby 5.0; DTS 5.0
TDK DV-OPLBH DVD video, Video aspect 16:9 [153 minutes] (Opera 127; Documentary 26)


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The Operetta (1865) about beautiful Helen, Queen of Sparta, and her abduction by Paris, King of Troy was a parody of the events which led to the Trojan War. However it was designed as a barely disguised satire about Napoleon III and the moral laxity of French High Society; accordingly the original script was full of topical allusions which would be lost on most members of a modern audience.

In producing this staging at the Châtelet Theatre the Director, Laurent Pelly, working closely with the conductor, Marc Minkowski, re-worked the staging with the core idea that the action all takes place in the dreams of a sleeping, sex-starved, suburban housewife who is in bed with her somnolent old husband at the present time. With the logic of dreams there results a mixture of life in ancient Greece mixed with modern Greece as a holiday resort. Although my instincts are to prefer the minimum of alteration to the original version, in this particular staging the concept works very well and the result is an hilarious comedy which is true to the spirit of Offenbach.

The focus throughout is a large double bed and the operetta starts with Dame Felicity getting into bed with her sleeping husband and starting to dream that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Dame Felicity is not a name which would have leapt to my mind for French Operetta, but she is brilliant throughout both when singing and speaking (she has a degree in French) and is totally idiomatic and convincing in this far from easy part.

The strange logic of this dream leads to a wonderful mixture of disparate elements. The chorus sometimes appears in classical tunics and sometimes in modern beach wear. The ancient heroes are dressed as figures of fun (for example a battle hat topped with a broom head) and make their first appearance on luggage trolleys pushed by railway porters. When Helen sings her dream love duet with Paris, who is disguised as a shepherd, a flock of sheep appear and meekly surround the lovers ( a wonderful touch!). Helen explains that she is doing no wrong in betraying her husband because she has to obey the instructions of the Goddess Venus an excuse with a fascinating philosophical ramifications.

Throughout, the staging and choreography is brilliant; a brilliant romp where we never know what to expect next. The audience laughs a lot at the jokes and the activities on the stage. The DVD captures well what was obviously a successful theatrical event.

Musically the disc is equally winning, Marc Minkowski is a conductor who specialises in the French Baroque but seems very much at home with the score in its mixture of the rhythmically alert and more sedate numbers. The short form of the Overture is used. Dame Felicity Lott shows herself to be just as brilliant in French Operetta as in Richard Strauss. Vann Beuron has a good tenor voice which he uses to good effect as Paris. The other parts are all sung with verve and élan, with the veteran Michel Sénéchal being particularly effective in the part of Helen's husband, the King of Spartan. The chorus of the Musicians du Louvre is exemplary; they are the backbone of the operetta in terms not only of singing but also acting and dancing.

The stage work and lighting is excellent. The sound also is good, with a realistic ambience in surround sound. All in all Offenbach's operetta is confirmed as a masterpiece in this splendid DVD.

Arthur Baker

Also see review by Franck Cadenhead

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