Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La Belle Hélène - Opéra-bouffe in three acts [124:00]
Helen – Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo); Paris – Deon van der Walt (tenor); Calchas – Carlos Chausson (baritone); Meneleus – Volker Vogel (tenor); Agamemnon – Oliver Widmer (baritone); Orestes – Liliana Nichiteanu (mezzo); Ajax 1 – Ruben Amoretti; Ajax II – Cheyne Davidson; Achilles – Steve Davislim (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera House/Nicholas Harnoncourt
rec. live, 1997
synopsis but no text or translation included
Sound PCM Stereo; Picture NTSC/16:9; Region 0 (worldwide)
Sung in French, subtitles in English, German, Dutch and Greek
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 087 DVD [124:00]

La Belle Hélène was written in 1864 and represents a very successful attempt at repeating the success of the first version of Orphée aux enfers of 1858. Between them had come a series of shorter works as well as the full-length Die Rheinnixen, written for Vienna. Its mixture of satire in the libretto at the expense of the Second Empire, musical satire at the expense of a variety of targets including Meyerbeer and Wagner, and sentimental waltzes makes it potentially irresistible. It is however far from foolproof in performance as this disc illustrates all too clearly.

To deal with the more satisfactory aspects first. Musically there is little to complain of and much to praise. Watching Nicholas Harnoncourt conduct at any time must be an unnerving experience for players unused to his wide-eyed stare, but here he uses it to good effect to project the manic quality of much of this score. He emphasizes Offenbach’s pungent orchestration without vulgarizing it, at the same time relishing the more lyrical moments. The real rhythmic abandon and energy of the score is achieved without which it can fall very flat.

The singers are well cast vocally, with Vesselina Kasarova and Deon van der Walt particularly striking, but there are no serious weaknesses in this respect. Where there is an intolerable weakness is in the production and designs. The latter are particularly poor, with a set consisting of steps narrowing towards the top with the interior of a large dome above. The effect is to greatly reduce the effective acting area and to reduce the amount and type of movement that can take place. The costumes are neither funny nor relevant. Vesselina Kasarova is a singer of great physical as well as vocal beauty, but she is given a particularly unflattering blonde wig which takes away much of the point of the plot. I will admit that humour does tend to evaporate when perceived through subtitles, but I found myself sitting stony-faced through the dialogue wondering when it would end. All in all, this is yet another example of a potentially fine performance spoilt by the producer’s ineptitude. Things do improve as the work progresses but not to any significant extent.

There are several fine performances of this work on CD, in particular that conducted by René Leibowitz in 1952 now available on Regis (RRC 2062), but musically the present DVD has considerable claims to be regarded as one of the best. It is certainly well worth hearing, but I doubt if you will want to see it more than once.

John Sheppard

Well worth hearing but I doubt if you will want to see it more than once. 2 attachments — Download all attachments