Like Orphée aux enfers, written six years earlier, Offenbach’s La belle Hélène of 1764 is a parody of an ancient myth. Both employ Ludovic Halévy as one of the librettists, and while the former inverts the legend by having Orpheus and Eurydice hating each other, the latter works with the original story but pushes it to extremes. In this way, after Helen is seduced by Paris the entire Court of Sparta sees this is an excuse to indulge in licentious behaviour!
Because it is such a light-hearted piece, there really is no limit to the fun that can be had with it, and New Sussex Opera, in collaboration with Opera della Luna, proved just how well placed it was to exploit its comedy. All of the principals were professional singers, but many of the wider chorus were presumably drawn from the Sussex area, and so this presentation achieved the best of both worlds in combining quality and professionalism with the type of panache that is often only found in good amateur productions.
The performance was in English with the libretto having been translated and liberally interpreted by director Jeff Clarke to include earthy and contemporary language. Alongside references to telephoning and the shop ‘Primargos’, there were hilarious turns of phrase as Helen complained that her mother ‘screwed a flipping swan’ and that Penelope constantly goes on and on about her knitting! Oreste became a cross-dresser who led a transgender gang, while the scene in which the High Priest Calchas wins money by cheating at a board game was turned into a round of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ with someone coughing to him to indicate the right answers.
Overall, however, the production did not update everything to the modern day so much as unashamedly play fast and loose with eras. The Overture saw modern day tourists being shown the ancient Temple of Jupiter before they became the chorus in Sparta while retaining their modern day garb. The Prelude to Act II was also amusing as Bacchis led Helen and the jeune filles in a workout routine.
‘Vénus au fond de nos âmes’ asked why everyone had become so promiscuous with Orestes providing the answer ‘viagra’, while another chorus saw ‘bugger’ repeated many times! Although that was obviously not the word in the original libretto, it does tie in with Offenbach’s 1869 creation Vert-Vert, in which a character lets off a string of expletives in one aria. Even this was nearly ten years before Captain Corcoran’s utterance of ‘damme’ in HMS Pinafore, and thus reveals how much earlier France was comfortable with salty language in predominantly light-hearted works compared with Britain.
The orchestra, under the baton of Toby Purser, was on excellent form, while Hannah Pedley revealed an extremely full mezzo-soprano with just a hint of darkness as she perfectly captured the demeanour of the beautiful, but vulnerable, Helen. Anthony Flaum revealed a highly pleasing tenor and some good dance moves as Paris, while Robert Gildon displayed a strong and secure baritone and real presence as Calchas. Charles Johnston and Paul Featherstone gave highly entertaining portrayals of the eccentric Agamemnon and doddery Menelaus respectively, while Catherine Backhouse and Jennifer Clark were good value as Orestes and Bacchis. Garsington Opera may have earned a strong reputation for presenting Offenbach rarities, but New Sussex Opera must be commended for producing something on a significantly smaller scale that was so much fun.
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