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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880) La Belle Hélène - Opéra Bouffe in three acts
(1864) C MAJOR DVD 730908/Blu-ray 731004 [117:00]
The life of Jacques Offenbach is nearly as complicated and tragic as his last, and greatest work, The Tales of Hoffmann. Jacques was originally Jacob, born in 1819 in Cologne, the son of a Jewish cantor and music teacher. The son revealed such early talent that the father made many sacrifices to send his son to study in Paris where he in turn scraped a living as a ‘session cellist’, in today’s idiom. In the early 1850s he started to compose light-hearted buffa works. At the time of the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris, frustrated by inability to get his compositions performed, he had opened the minuscule Bouffes Parisiens theatre. Visitors to The Exhibition flocked to hear his tuneful operettas satirising the contemporary politics and society manners of the Second Empire, particularly sexual freedoms and promiscuity. As one successful work followed another Rossini dubbed Offenbach "The Mozart of the Champs Elysée". This frivolous time in France finished abruptly with the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of Paris in 1870-71. The fall of Emperor Napoleon III quickly followed and with it the collapse of the Second Empire. Perhaps Offenbach with his Germanic guttural French felt his day in France was over. He went to America still harbouring a wish to write a true opera that would be accepted and performed at the Paris Opéra Comique. This was to be his enigmatic Les Contes d’Hoffmann. However, Offenbach died before its completion and staging having left behind operetta as an international art form.
La Belle Hélène, is typical of Offenbach’s operetta genre. Its parody on the origins of the Trojan War was clearly recognised in its day as a comment on the moral laxity of the Second Empire high society as well as a send up of other composers' work, including Wagner no less. He fused dialogue and music to tell his story. In this story the sexually frustrated Hélène, married to the elderly and eye-roaming Ménélas, learns that the beautiful youth Pâris is set to make love to the most beautiful woman in the world who, she firmly believes, is herself. In this production the action is updated to a 1960s cruise liner. The staging update is spectacular, no expense spared and is different for each act. Act One is set on the foredeck of the liner. Act Two in Hélène’s opulent suite where she and Pâris make out until caught en flagrante by Ménélas’ premature return. Act Three is the playing deck with a swimming pool, not filled with water I add, surrounded by sunbathing bodybuilders and topless models. There are statues, cheerleaders waving pom-poms, dancers, along with a parade of lookalikes including a sour Frau Merkel pushing a wheelbarrow of cash. The arrival of the kings has Achille as a guitar-carrying Teddy-boy while the Ajaxes are football managers or players. In other words the director, complete with a horde of dancers and extras sets out to turn this Offenbach’s Second Empire La Belle Hélène into musical theatre rather than operetta.
Reviewing the 2014 Pesaro performance of Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira I noted how a superb singing cast was expected to bring the drama alive despite the most spartan of sets. Well, this staging of La Belle Hélène might be considered the total antithesis. Great sets, costumes and directorial imagination gone rife, but all allied to mediocre singing. Typical is the casting of Pâris and Hélène. Jun-Sang Han, as Pâris, is tall and spectacularly handsome as a shepherd but his origins and work in musical theatre are evident in his singing. Adequate in his middle range, less so as he goes higher. As to Jennifer Larmore in the eponymous role, I well remember her in several Opera Rara recordings as a flexible full-toned characterful mezzo. In reviewing one of her discs I suggested that she really had the wow factor (review). Whilst still looking superb in a low-backed dress with a similarly styled front that she fits with a capacious cleavage, her singing has lost a lot of its former lustre. She starts off distinctly unsteady but improves, and she can still act. With a couple of exceptions much the same applies to the rest of the cast but with the French language often coming off less than well. Singing of operatic quality is in short supply albeit it would pass muster on the music-theatre stage. Offenbach’s constant stream of tunes and a committed chorus keep the entertainment high whilst the sexual shenanigans provide diversion for those who like that kind of thing as Offenbach’s audiences would doubtless have done to add to their appreciation of the satire in respect of the Second Empire.
There is plenty of competition on DVD, not least that from the Chatelet, Paris, in 2000, also updated. Conducted by Marc Minkowski it features Dame Felicity Lott in the eponymous role among a strongly francophone cast: Arthaus Musik 107 403 (reviewreview).
Robert J Farr
A review of the Blu-ray version ...
Jennifer Larmore has been quite rightly praised for her performance as the eponymous Hélène. She displays technical skill and considerable stamina in a piece which gives her few breaks. The audience were quite rightly 'wowed' by her big arias. The remaining cast are also top class and there is never any feeling of strain in projecting Offenbach's engaging score. The Hamburg orchestra and chorus are, unsurprisingly, top class. The picture and sound are up to the usual standards of clarity and range. From a performance point-of-view this Blu-ray may safely be purchased.
The production is another matter. The audience seemed to like it and other viewers of the video have been complimentary. For me it all seemed very odd, with a disconnect between the work, words and music, and the stage action. Offenbach wrote this as a satire on both the French Grand Opera tradition's predilection for classical subjects and the social mores of mid-19th century Parisian society. Its most famous relative is Orphée aux enfers, based similarly on a classical myth. The other famous and more pointedly satirical work is La vie Parisienne. These and other pieces aimed to lampoon his own era and it is worth noting that he did not have to make his satire obvious. The jibes at Parisian society were clearly understood by his audience. People flocked to these risqué and highly successful light operas, light in that they were tuneful and lively throughout and did not demand 'serious' treatment, certainly not light in musical quality. Arguably Offenbach was more evenly creative musically than, for example, Sullivan. So when the present director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe 'repackaged' the story on board a 1960s cruise ship, called, with very heavy humour, Jupiter, and made the entire cast into the rich and self-obsessed of the age of flower-power, high on sex and drugs, they created a problem and then to my mind failed to overcome it. Nineteenth century Paris was happy to accept the conceit that they were watching characters from Ancient Greece who believed absolutely in the power and even the physical presence of gods, but nonetheless displayed all the self-indulgent behaviours of the rich. They 'got it' without extra plot twists. Here we are expected to believe that a rich, beautiful, but faded 1960s woman gets knocked on the head by some cargo being winched on board, gets carried on unconscious (why not taken to the nearest hospital?) and wakes up convinced she is Helen of Troy. Somehow, perhaps it is all a dream, all the other passengers join in the delusion. All this so that Meilhac and Halévy's libretto still makes some sort of sense. To add to their troubles, and helped by the presence on board of a passenger strikingly like Elvis Presley, much of the dancing is early 60s jiving with much rock'n'roll movement, all set to Offenbach's waltz-soaked score. I am sorry, it doesn't fit. Neither the words nor the music match this setting, which, despite the skill and agility of everyone concerned, is why I can only recommend this disc with the picture off.
There is at least one video performance in circulation which, though only on DVD, manages a vaguely similar idea very much better. It is the Châtelet production with Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski with Felicity Lott as Helen (review; CD review). Here the idea of a dream is marked by a gradual transition from a clearly Ancient Greek chorus via a set on an archaeological dig complete with tourists, to a beach resort during which, yes, Paris turns up looking like Elvis. The key members of the cast, Calchas, Menelaus, Helen herself, Agamemnon, Paris and all the others start very Ancient Greek and end up nearly modern by the end of the show. Because Jupiter remains an unseen god he can be safely worshipped initially with some seriousness but with increasing humour. The Act 1 setting is simple enough to carry this transition without any glaring inconsistencies, Act 2 is dominated by a huge mural from Troy, and Act 3 is a modern Greek resort. The words thus make sufficient sense and are indeed funnier. The clincher is the performance itself which positively fizzes. Hamburg Opera's Jennifer Larmore is very good but Felicity Lott is truly spectacular in the title role. Dave Billinge
Hélène, Queen of Sparta - Jennifer Larmore; Ménélas, her husband and
King of Sparta - Peter Galliard; Pâris, son of Priam King of Troy -
Jun-Sang Han; Agamemnon, King of Argos - Viktor Rud; Oreste, Agamemnon’s
son - Rebecca Jo Loeb; Achille, Achilles King of Phtiotis - Dovlet Nurgeldiyev;
Ajax 1, King of Salamis - Sergiu Saplacan; Ajax 2, King of Locris -
Benjamin Popson; Calchas, grand soothsayer of Jupiter - Christian Miedl;
Bacchis, Helens chambermaid - Anat Edri
Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera and Hamburg Philharmonic/Gerrit Priessnitz
Stage Director and Choreography: Renaud Doucet
Set and Costume Designer: André Barbe
rec. Hamburg State Opera, 2 and 5 October 2014
Subtitles: French (original language), English, German, Spanish, Chinese,
Booklet notes: English, German, French DVD
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, dts 5.1.
Picture format: 16:9, HD Blu-ray
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i
Reviewed in surround.