OFFENBACH La Belle Hélène
Although this comes from Hamburg, it’s La Belle Hélène and not Die schöne Helena. The director-cum-choreographer Renaud Doucet and his designer André Barbe are French Canadians, and this show has an effervescence to rival Laurent Pelly’s scintillating version with Marc Minkowski at the Châtelet in Paris. In both productions we are a long way from ancient Greece: not that it matters, as the librettists Meilhac and Halévy were tilting not at Homeric heroes but at the extravagance and corruption of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. Here the setting is the 1960s. During the Overture, people gather on the shore. A young man is thrown an apple, which he munches; a young woman has a fall and is stretchered up the gangplank of a passenger liner. The action, which takes place on board ship, is – perhaps – all in her dreams.
The young woman is Helen and the young man, of course, is Paris. In a dazzling array of costumes, flaunting an impressive décolletage, Jennifer Larmore submits joyfully to her transition from frustrated wife to seduced and abducted lover, blaming it all on Fate. She sings and acts with great vivacity without going over the top (save for a hyper-exaggerated cadenza near the end). Paris, in an improbably curly blond wig, is played by Jun-Sang Han. He is an accomplished actor but his singing – of ‘Au mont Ida’, for instance – is a little raw. The ‘Dream’ duet with Helen goes well, though, and he is funny when he reappears as the Grand Augur of Venus, bearded with Afro hair. Calchas, the Grand Augur of Jupiter, is played by Christian Miedl as the ship’s captain. He and Viktor Rud’s Agamemnon fool around amusingly; Peter Galliard as the cuckolded Menelaus is on a par with the veteran Michel Sénéchal on the Minkowski recording.
The sets and costumes are poster-bright. A picture of her parents, Leda and the swan, hangs above Helen’s bed. A whip and handcuffs are produced but the S&M goes no further. The gods’ word-competition and the Game of Goose are much shortened (the latter is omitted on the Minkowski DVD; both are on his CD recording – Virgin, A/01). Vividly conducted by Gerrit Priessnitz, the whole thing is a blast, and bang up-to-date too: when Menelaus says meaningfully that the people will pay, in comes ‘Angela Merkel’, pushing a wheelbarrow full of euros to a lugubrious rendering of the European Union’s ‘Ode to Joy’.