Opera Scotland

Belle Hélène La Belle Hélène; The Beautiful Helen or The Fair Helen

Music
Jacques Offenbach (born Cologne, 20 June 1819; died Paris, 5 October 1880)

Text
Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy.

Source
Classical Greek literature relating to the origins of the Trojan War.

Premières
First performance: Paris (Théâtre des Variétés), 17 December 1864.
First UK performance: London (Adelphi Theatre), 30 June 1866.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 3 April 1965 (probably earlier).
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 25 October 1995.

Background
Offenbach and his writers had already enjoyed success satirising Greek mythology, so a similar theme was an obvious follow-up a few years later. La belle Hélène contains so much elegant and witty music that it became an instant success in Paris. It was followed by a series of pieces written by the same authors and starring the same hugely attractive star, Hortense Schneider, in the leading female role.

Main Characters
Calchas, High Priest of Jupiter (bass)
Helen, Queen of Sparta (mezzo-soprano)
Orestes, son of Agamemnon (mezzo-soprano)
Paris, son of King Priam (tenor)
Ajax I, King of Salamis (tenor)
Ajax II, King of Locris (baritone)
Achilles, King of Phthiotis (tenor)
Menelaus, King of Sparta (tenor)
Agamemnon, King of Argos (baritone)

Plot Summary
Helen is obsessed by reports that Paris, a Trojan prince, has been promised by Venus that he will gain the most beautiful woman in the world – for this of course is Helen herself, and she is already married to the decrepit Spartan King Menelaus. A shepherd arrives at the temple, and Calchas realises this must be Paris in disguise. He begins to help the seduction of Helen by announcing that Jupiter has decreed that Menelaus must leave for Crete.

Helen asks Calchas to pray that she may dream of a rendezvous with Paris, thus avoiding the temptation to have a real one. As she sleeps, Paris enters, now disguised as a slave, so she is able to wake and sing a luscious duet with him, confident that he is a figment of her imagination. Further progress is interrupted by the return of Menelaus and the entry of the other kings. Paris leaves.

The final act is set at Nauplia, a seaside resort (sea-bathing having become an extremely fashionable leisure pursuit in the 1860s). The kings have arrived for the holiday season, but are irritated by the crowds of ordinary people cluttering up the place. Menelaus has decided to solve his matrimonial difficulties by consulting the High Priest of Venus. When this priest arrives he advises that Venus will only grant pardon if Helen herself makes a pilgrimage to make sacrifice at Venus’s shrine. As Helen leaves, the priest reveals himself to be Paris, disguised once more. The abduction of Helen (now of Troy) is complete.

RECORDINGS

TDK – RM ARTS (1 DVD also on 2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 2000
Conductor: Marc Minkowski Director & Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly
Set Designer: Chantal Thomas
Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble
Felicity Lott (Helen), Yann Beuron (Paris), Laurent Naouri (Agamemnon).

This production picks up an idea from Offenbach’s second act, and has the whole opera occurring as the wish-fulfilment dream of a suburban housewife married to an elderly and dull husband. Dame Felicity Lott gives a delightfully sly performance as Helen, with the veteran tenor Michel Sénéchal as her husband. Yann Beuron is appropriately youthful as Paris, and the rest of the cast, all native French speakers, give excellent support, including François Le Roux as Calchas and Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Oreste. Marc Minkowski’s band of original instruments sounds delightfully like a proper pit band.

REGIS (2 bargain price CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1952

Conductor: René Leibowitz
Paris Philharmonic Orchestra
Janine Linda (Helen), André Dran (Paris), Jacques Linoslas (Agamemnon).

Is it really possible to recommend such a vintage recording above more recent ones? To be blunt, yes it is. With this classic set you can almost smell the greasepaint, and you feel as though there is a direct link to the authentic style that seems to have been broken since. An appetising filler consists of extracts from Chabrier’s delightful L’étoile.

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in French Recorded 1984
Conductor: Michel Plasson
Capitole Orchestra, Toulouse
Jessye Norman (Helen), John Aler (Paris), Gabriel Bacquier (Agamemnon).

With the exception of two American stars singing the lead roles, this recording has an entirely French cast, which does make a difference with the dialogue. Gabriel Bacquier is an absolute master at the operetta style, and he is equalled by Colette Alliot-Lugaz (Orestes), Charles Burles (Menelaus) and Jean-Philippe Lafont (Calchas). Michel Plasson conducts in excellent style.

EMI Classics for Pleasure (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1963

Excerpts, coupled with excerpts from La Vie Parisienne and Orpheus in the Underworld.
Conductor: John Matheson.
Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra
Joyce Blackham (Helen), Kevin Miller (Paris), John Heddle Nash (Agamemnon).

La belle Hélène was a great success at the Wells, and toured to Scotland twice, though the production didn’t survive the move to the Coliseum. Joyce Blackham and Kevin Miller are outstanding in the leads, and John Heddle Nash makes every word tell as Agamemnon. Patricia Kern and Derek Hammond Stroud are excellent as Orestes and Calchas.

The Cast

Achille
 King of Phtiotidos
Agamemnon
 King of Kings
Ajax I
 King of Salamis
Ajax II
 King of the Locrians
Anthea
 a woman of the town
Bacchis
 attendant to Hélène
Calchas
 High Priest of Jupiter
Chloé
 a woman of the town
Daphne
 Helen's maid
Doris
 a woman of the town
Euthycles
 a blacksmith
First Young Girl
 
Hélène
 Queen of Sparta
Jocanthis
 a woman of the town
Ménélas
 King of Sparta
Oreste
 son of Agamemnon
Paris
 son of King Priam
Phantis
 a woman of the town
Philocomus
 Chaplain to Calchas
Second Young Girl
 

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