April 1, 2006: Offenbach, La Belle Hélène

English National Opera, Coliseum. Opera-bouffe in three acts. Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludivoc Halévy. English version by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. Directed by Laurent Pelly. With Dame Felicity Lott as Helen. Production of the Théâtre des Châlet, Paris. Row B, Upper Circle. £42.-

The refurbished Coliseum is a very large and handsome place, with a stage to match it in size, and quite different in atmosphere from Covent Garden and less posh, of course, but attractive nonetheless. My seat was not so high as it was at Covent Garden for Onegin, and less vertiginous — and a little more pricey, as a result. I was simply and uncritically out for a good time, and that’s what I got. On the night before departing London I almost always go for comedy or farce or, in this case, opera bouffe. My most memorable last-night experience in this vein, several years back, was an absolutely delicious production of Orton’s What the Butler Saw, at Wyndham’s, the sort of magnificent farce only Orton is capable of writing; and it went, as Oscar Wilde said of his own farce, The Importance of Being Earnest, “like a pistol shot.” The Brits know how to do comic opera, too. This French production of an Offenbach light classic has been thoroughly Brit-ified, and the results are — well, not quite pistol-shot quality, but it goes at a very good clip and is as silly and frothy as all such stuff is, or should be.

The Offenbach music is of uneven quality. Was he ever completely “even” except in Tales of Hoffman (which had to be completed by someone else after his death)? At its best, the music of La Belle Hélène is as good as anything he wrote, though a certain amount of it is, shall we say, less than memorable. It seems the continuing action, all the same, and the hi-jinks on view in this production are sometimes inspired and always at least marvelously entertaining. An example: in the second act, when Helen falls asleep and thinks she is dreaming the dream she begged for her steward, Calchas, to send her, she is visited by the shepherd — Paris, in disguise. As the scene proceeds, the ten dancers who disport themselves in so sprightly a way in Act I enter — as sheep! on four legs, to the protracted merriment of the audience. They then pair off as fine loving couples and pantom­ime the expressions of love being voiced musically by Helen and Paris. It is absol­ute nonsense and great fun.

Two and a half hours of this delicious absurdity, punctuated at the last by the wish-fulfillment ending of Paris taking Helen away in a flying boat, as they toss handfuls of feathers down on a delighted company and a stomping mad Menel­aus, and I was happy and ready to throw the last few remnants of four weeks’ laundry into my suitcase and prepare for the early arrival of my Swiss Cottage Cars driver the next morning with a good if abbreviated night’s sleep.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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