No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Opera review: La Belle Helene, ENO, 6.5.06

La Belle Helene (Offenbach) -- ENO, May 6th

A hasty and belated write-up. This is one of my favourite oper(ett)as -- frivolous and bubbly in the true Offenbach tradition, not bad for a dramatic presentation about the causes of the Trojan War. It has some of the most glorious duets I've ever heard: and the finest and most sensual of these, "Oui c'est un rêve", was accompanied in this production by an especially athletic, and comic, flock of dancing sheep.

Enough said, perhaps.

I generally enjoy the lightheartedness that the ENO bring to comic opera. The chorus is fabulous, and I've never seen a company that can present such joie de vivre in ensemble pieces. La Belle Helene was no exception: air stewardesses, the Kings of Greece in beach-wear, and the standard parade of gawping tourists all did their bit to brighten the stage and the air. Kitsch as anything, gaudy as a Covent Garden tat shop: splendid stuff.

Kit Hesketh-Harvey (one half of Kit and the Widow) was responsible for the translation, and I think he kept the spirit of the original, despite via some truly appalling puns. "I feel foul!" "Only to be expected if one's the offspring of poultry." I suspect he's also responsible for the revision of the riddle-game. In the original French this is a laboured game of charades, the solution being 'locomotive'. (Yes, this is Antiquity.) Making it into a musical riddle, we had the New World Symphony (3rd syllable of composer's name), O Fortuna (composer), 'Rule Britannia' (composer) and a bit of Bach. Go on, you'll never guess.

In retrospect, the production rather overwhelms the actual performance. But Toby Spence made an excellently sung, and suitably glamorous, Paris. Felicity Lott was older than the average Helen, but nailed the Mature Woman Seeks Toyboy aspect of the role. The only disappointment, vocally, was Leah-Marian Jones as Orestes: I could hardly hear her, which was a shame as it's a sharp and witty role. (We were in the balcony, and spent the first half behind a woman who was desperately trying to see around the tallest man in the house), but everyone except Orestes was audible.) Orestes, sadly, was overshadowed by the two burlesque dancers who followed him everywhere.

Some very nice moments -- a reprise from an earlier duet as the couple ascend in Paris's flying galley, for example -- and a great many laugh-out-loud lines. Important to remember that a lot of the irreverence is Offenbach's: he set the finale at a beach resort, had Calchas (High Priest) as a doddery old bloke more concerned with protocol than religion, and is 100% responsible for 'l'homme a la pomme', yodelling Paris and recorded-delivery doves.

I hope some day to be able to listen to "Oui, c'est un rêve" without thinking of sheep cavorting, rug-like, around the bed.

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