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Offenbach, La Belle Hélène : Orchestra, chorus and soloists of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester/ Mark Shanahan. Bruntwood Theatre, Manchester 1.12. 2009 (RJF)

Production team:

Directed by Stefan Janski
Set designer, Simon Rostrand
Costumes designer, Elaine Needham


The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester has a long and honourable lineage in training both singers and orchestral musicians. It has a particular distinguished list of former alumnae in the field of opera performances, many of whom grace the stage at the very best operatic addresses. The nature of the training they receive at RNCM involves many other elements as well as the development of vocal technique and includes languages, acting, movement, all the other appropriate skills of performance on stage and knowledge of the various operatic genres. The best preparation anyone can have for a career in the theatre comes from performing as principal, cover or comprimario, in one of the college’s annual staged performances. Such opportunities are open to undergraduates as well as postgraduate students, some of them having already had stage experience when they enter the college. Last year the December production was Johan Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (see review) complete with all its challenges for singing and acting: operetta’s comedy and subtleties being perhaps even more demanding than the more normal operatic fare of drama and violence, and usually connected with affairs of the heart, or at least the libido. Libidinous urges certainly dominate in Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, a story about the most beautiful woman in the world. Hélène, wearies of her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta, and fancies a little dalliance, or preferably more with Paris the son of the king of Priam, since this is the era of the licentious Gods of Greek myth.

Rossini called Offenbach ‘The Mozart of the Champs Elysées.’ Born Jacob Eberst in Cologne, the son of a jobbing Jewish fiddler cum music teacher, Offenbach revealed such early talent that his father made many sacrifices to send him to study in Paris. There he scraped a living as a jobbing cellist while composing in his spare time, he opened the miniscule Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens at the time of the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris,. Visitors to the exhibition flocked to hear his tuneful operettas, which fitted the mood of the country at that time like a glove. Premiered in December 1864, La Belle Hélène, was typical of its frivolous genre reflecting the decadence of France’s Second Empire which was to collapse like a pack of cards with the onset of the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris, and the fall of the Emperor Napoleon 3rd.

Like the story , the music is full of full of froth and verve. Mark Shanahan on the rostrum set an appropriately alert pace with well sprung rhythms that were picked up with consummate professionalism by the student orchestra with sonorous strings well to the fore. The students on stage included a chorus of over forty-five young and vibrant voices and bodies and all of them were up for Offenbach’s fun and frolics. I have seen professional choruses go well over the top in not dissimilar circumstances, but this performance in the magical hands of Stefan Janski, Head of Operatic Studies and the production’s Director, ensured there were no such problems. The college is immensely lucky to have had his sure and expert guidance behind all of its productions over the last twenty three years. He carefully channelled the obvious enjoyment and enthusiasm of all concerned, chorus and soloists alike, to ensure an outstanding performance in all respects.

A classical front gauze of God like statues for the overture, with a little walking on by Manelaus dragging a reluctant Heléne round a gallery, was followed by different sets for each of the three acts. The chorus were moved around skilfully, particularly in Act III, with deliberate but artfully concealed intent, while the soloists were always placed to give of their best in the important numbers; this was operatic direction of the highest order.

Helene Sherman (Hélène) and Sipho Fubesi (Paris)

In the title role, the Australian mezzo Helen Sherman sang with excellent diction, a warm expressive tone and good range. She was in the cover cast as Orlofsky in last year’s Fledermaus and is already carded for the trousers role of Sesto in the college’s March production of La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s last written opera and a very different challenge. To match the quality of her vocal contribution, my major admiration her acting. She was fully involved in the realisation of the role and portrayed Hélène as glorying in her reputation as a beauty and using all of it as the sexy manipulator of all the males around, even though some, like Calchas offered some initial resistance. As an actor, Helen Sherman was matched perfectly by the South African Sipho Fubesi, also a postgraduate with good stage experience, in the role of Paris. He used a splendidly expressive face to excellent effect as he grappled with temptation, lust and apprehension by turns. In his first aria, he cut short the high notes but came into his own with full toned strong expressive singing as the opera progressed and like Helen Sherman’s Hélène, the clarity of his diction was commendable.

Andrew Fellows as Calchas sang and acted very well. At first I was surprised to read that he had sung Sarastro in the past, since his voice sounded more smooth baritone than bass but in the last act he revealed more of his capacity for a strong lower register. Colin Brockie, a true bass and dressed as a sea captain with plenty of braid as befits Agamemnon, the King of Kings, showed much vocal promise whilst Elisabeth Karani, a third year undergraduate, donned white trousers and a hat of lower rank to sing Orestes, Agamemnon’s son. The courtesans Leonie and Leona both acted nicely as did the characterful kings of Salamis and Locrians. Hanna-Lisa Midwod-Kirchin was Hélène’s perfectly acted and sung working class accented maid; she is the cover for Sesto in next year’s Clemenza di Tito.

The pictures show something of the magnificent sets for Acts I and II, the swan bed being a perfect reference for Greek mythology. The set for the Act III frolics on the beach was simpler and dominated by a huge statue of Zeus complete with trident and with all of his physical assets unmistakeably to the fore. I found the 1930s type beachwear rather lacking inspiration in final act: the only slight quibbled in the whole production.

Like the rest of the full house audience I went home well satisfied and secure in the knowledge that the current students at RNCM have all the skills need to carry on its distinguished tradition. Further performances are scheduled for December 3rd, 10th and 12th at 7.15pm with a matinee at 3pm on Sunday 6th. Catch it if you can, you will not find a better show anywhere near Manchester this Christmas.


Robert J Farr

Pictures courtesy of the Royal Northern College of Music

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