To celebrate the composer’s two hundredth anniversary, Jacques Offenbach‘s favourite,
in collaboration with Opera della Luna,
in a new English translation
with NSO Chorus, St Paul’s Sinfonia, conductor Toby Purser, director Jeff Clarke, designer Gabriella Csanyi-Wills
Cast includes
Hannah Pedley Hélène,
 
Anthony Flaum Paris,
Paul Featherstone Menelaus,
Catherine Backhouse Orestes,
Charles Johnston Agamemnon,
Robert Gildon Calchas,
Jennifer Clark Bacchis.

As the debacle of ENO’s current production of Orpheus in the Underworld demonstrates, it’s all too easy to come a cropper with Offenbach, and over the years I’ve seen so many duff, dragging, witless stagings of his work that I’ve rather lost faith in the widespread idea that he was a genius (G&S done well I generally find much more satisfying).

But for its delightful production of La belle Hélène – a satire of the loose sexual morals of the French Second Empire, veiled in characters drawn from Greek mythology – New Sussex Opera has been savvy in engaging the director Jeff Clarke, someone whose long record of work with the small-scale company Opera della Luna indicates an all too rare understanding of the leggiero style and allegro pace that operetta requires if it is to hit the mark. 

Clarke makes free with La belle Hélène’s setting – a pantomime fantasy of Sparta, neither modern nor ancient – and translates the libretto with Gilbertian fluency, cannily treading the narrow line between cheerful vulgarity and cheap coarseness. There are jokes about Argos and television talent shows, but they are never heavy-handed and one doesn’t sense a desperate urge to milk laughs at the expense of good taste. The dialogue has been as well rehearsed as the musical numbers, and some smart cutting and splicing ensures that the show comes in at a respectable length of two and a half hours. This is the way to treat Offenbach, and it doesn’t cost big bucks.  

Toby Purser conducts a 12-piece band with verve, letting the music breathe comfortably in its more romantic episodes, and even in the unsympathetic acoustic of Lewes Town Hall, a fair percentage of the words came across. 

There’s a good cast too, led by Hannah Pedley as a cool and sophisticated Hélène and Anthony Flaum as a vocally suave Paris, very dashing in black leathers. Charles Johnston, Paul Featherstone and Robert Gildon work hard as the comic old buffers, and Catherine Backhouse sings Orestes’ song with such charm that I wished Offenbach had given her more to do. 

The amateur chorus sounded fresher than it has in recent NSO productions, and the only disappointment of the evening was a grudgingly po-faced audience that seemed reluctant to let its largely grey hair down and enjoy itself as much as I did. Daily Telegraph

New Sussex Opera joins forces with operetta specialists Opera della Luna for its latest production, which benefits from Jeff Clarke’s mastery of the medium.

Recent events at English National Opera demonstrate that even with talented people in charge, operetta can go disastrously wrong: maybe next time the company plans to stage one, they should bring in Clarke.

Beautiful Helen is the follow-up to Orpheus in the Underworld, in which Offenbach and his regular librettists make fun of the myth of when Paris met Helen. However, on another level they are directly addressing the pleasure-obsessed society of the Second French Empire – which just a few years later came crashing down in the triple catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris and the Commune. La Belle Hélène ends ominously with the declaration of the Trojan War, and a shiver goes down your spine.

Meanwhile, you’ve been royally entertained by a high-energy staging which is expertly sung and delivered by a team that knows exactly how to put their material across.

Hannah Pedley’s sophisticated Helen leads the libidinous dance, with Anthony Flaum’s winning smile and easy top notes tempting her along the primrose path as matinee-idol Paris.

Entering gamely into the arrant nonsense of the powers that be are Charles Johnston’s fulminating Agamemnon, Robert Gildon’s blustering chief priest Calchas and Paul Featherstone’s delightfully daffy Menelaus.

Catherine Backhouse epitomises the show’s gender fluidity with her thigh-slapping Orestes, and Jennifer Clark fields a sparky Bacchis.

The chorus – variously cod-Ancient Greek, Second Empire, or contemporary coach-tourists – look as if they’re enjoying themselves, while conductor Toby Purser keeps the music bouncing along.

French fizz and foolery set to deliciously immortal music – outrageous fun

Wednesday November 13, 7pm – Lewes Town Hall
Sunday November 17, 4pm – Congress Theatre, Eastbourne
Thursday November 28, 7pm  – Chequer Mead, East Grinstead
Sunday December 1, 4pm  – The Old Market, Hove

Thursday December 5, 7pm – The Bloomsbury Theatre

Booking details

One of the UK’s most enterprising small opera companies, New Sussex Opera constantly surprises with its ambition and the quality of its fully staged productions.” Opera Now September 2018

NSO’s world premiere recording of The Travelling Companion is now available from SOMM click here for details