La Belle Hélène

Jacques Offenbach

Opéra-bouffe in three acts
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
English version by Jeff Clarke

November/ December 2019
Lewes Town Hall
Congress Theatre, Eastbourne
Chequer Mead, East Grinstead
The Old Market, Hove
The Bloomsbury Theatre, London

A collaboration with Opera della Luna

Helen Hannah Pedley
Paris Anthony Flaum
Menelaus Paul Featherstone
Agamemnon Charles Johnston
Calchas Robert Gildon
Orestes Catherine Backhouse
Bacchis Jennifer Clark
Jeunes filles Becky Anstey, Poppy Damazar,
Patricija Jurgaityte, Kitty Needham,
Kiera Smitheram
Priests Alison Read, Margaret Woskett
Orestes’ friends Carole Britten, Julie Griffiths,
Harry Heave, Ross Page

NSO Chorus
St Paul’s Sinfonia
Conductor Toby Purser
Director Jeff Clarke
Designer Gabriella Csanyi-Wills
Lighting Designer Matthew Cater
Choreographers
 Caitlin Fretwell-Walsh,
Daniel Gee

 

“My dream was always to found a mutual insurance society for the combating of boredom” – so said Offenbach, according to the blurb.  If this was the touchstone used to assay the merits of this production, then it paid off in spades. Dispensing with any torpor inducing pretensions (no names no pack drill) we tumbled head first into a world of contemporary satire, raising a ginger finger at our complacency and the right old mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into.

The action set off apace with some jauntily crisp playing from the St Paul’s Sinfonia in the pit. The chorus descended with idiosyncratic abandon, indeterminate gender and questionable sartorial taste, courtesy of Simply Spartan Tours, there to witness the site of all that Venereal intrigue, set back whenever it was.

No urn was left unturned in this Homeric satire, all done in the best possible and vulgar taste. The dialogue sparkled in this hedonistic caper and if there were a few musical stumbles it scarcely mattered. Hannah Pedley was a gloriously languorous Auntie Nellie with a lush chest voice and if Anthony Flaum occasionally over sang for my taste, he cut quite the dash in a kilt. Robert Gildon, Paul Featherstone and Charles Johnston delivered camp infectious drollery that never flagged, whilst Catherine Backhouse was a gender-fluid Orestes. The whole evening was a delight.

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

Because this 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.

As Offenbach’s 200th anniversary year drew to a close, New Sussex Opera and Opera della Luna brought La Belle Hélène to London. In July, Blackheath Halls Opera’s production had carefully avoided any impropriety—it was a community show, after all. This version, in a translation and staging by Opera della Luna’s Jeff Clarke, risked some raunchiness while somehow remaining innocent of spirit.

Hannah Pedley, coolly glamorous as Hélène la brune rather than la blonde, retained her dignity throughout. Innately noble of vocal colour and line, she also brought a silky allure to the dialogue. Courting her with engaging energy was the Paris of Anthony Flaum. He performed with the focus and precision of a true farceur, his original training in musical theatre clearly proving an asset, and sang with unstinting commitment. In the final scene his identity was concealed by a splendid matte black Hellenic helmet, but his initial pastoral disguise had been completed with a Shaun the Sheep backpack. Some kind of Classical reference was always present in Gabriella Csanyi-Wills’s colourful designs, but Clarke favoured an anarchic mash-up of various eras.

The show opened with two squads of modern tourists— one resolutely British, the other led by a tour guide brandishing an EU flag—on a visit to the ruins of Sparta. This topical thread got rather lost in the mix until the very final tableau as Paris, riding a motorbike, abducted Helen: presaging war, the two factions went head to head. We were firmly in traditional operetta territory with the blustering and dithering of Calchas, Menelaus and Agamemnon but Robert Gildon revealed a rolling baritone as well as sharp comic timing, while Paul Featherstone sang with considerable point and Charles Johnston intoned to imposing effect. Catherine Backhouse‘s sparky Orestes led a gender-fluid posse of friends and Jennifer Clark made a sweet-toned, perky Bacchis. There was a real whiff of Second Empire greasepaint in Toby Purser‘s conducting, which favoured brisk tempos (even in the waltz, which accompanied some ladylike calisthenics on stage). The St Paul’s Sinfonia played with charm and a welcome edge.      Yehuda Shapiro

In one of several amusing email exchanges with the UK organiser of this society, he described his trepidation at attending Offenbach performances potentially modernised into “a strange production with men sitting on toilets or something” as if the cast was trapped in some deeply uncomfortable Luis Bunuel film. I, too, shared this concern. Principally I wondered how director Jeff Clarke would manage to shoehorn an English translation into the still-credited Meilhac & Halévy original. On the train down I explained to my bemused Czech wife, who knows even less French than I, that they’d have to find a good fit for the frantic pace and comedy of “pars pour la Crête” and “file, file, file!”. And what about the puns, like King Menelaus’s “je suis l’epoux de la reine ” (I am the spouse/louse of the queen)? It almost works in English but not quite. Then there was the overall tone to consider. If it wasn’t recognisably a parody of both the Greek myths and the wife-swapping, innuendo-laden, censor-dodging 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie then it would be pointless. On the other hand, in English it had no excuse for not being funny or achieving the appropriate level of risqué. In Brighton & Hove, where the annual Thai Ladyboys show is as traditional as chips on the pier, this bar is quite high, but push it too far and you end up in toilet-territory again.

All of these worries evaporated very quickly. The Old Market Theatre is not purpose-built or large but the 30 voices and small orchestra of the combined New Sussex Opera and Opera della Luna filled it completely. In my amateur opinion, the playing, singing and acoustics were as good as any of the several recorded versions of La Belle Hélène I’ve heard. From the first bar this production had it in the bag. Firstly, the setting and costumes. Firmly Greek, but tongue-in-cheek (in the original spirit, note!) with the chorus dressed as modern tourists and the cast equally at home in pantomime-ancient garb and scuba gear. What of the English version? Outstanding, in fact. Often running close to the M&H original but with much entirely re-written. What did “pars pour la Crete” become? “Out of the country”. Why didn’t I think of that? “File, file, file” became “bugger, bugger, bugger off!” which, trust me, worked and was hilarious. The kings were cut down to two. This worked too. The quiz scene was rewritten skilfully. The LGBTQ+ innuendo was ramped up, because this isn’t 1864 and (pay attention) those breeches-roles were already in the original. On the cusp of rude at times but never teetering over. Just where Offenbach intended it. Sadly I did not get one of the mock Viagra pills that were distributed to male audience members.

Of the cast, all were superb comic actors as well as singers. This isn’t optional for an Offenbach. Arguably the spoken sections were as entertaining as the songs, which is saying a lot. Robert Gildon’s Calchas, subtly channelling the ghost of Rik Mayall at times, was at risk of stealing the first act. Hannah Pedley’s vain but three-dimensional Helen soon asserted herself and then Anthony Flaum produced a Paris of such startlingly athletic supercilious smugness that seemed to extend to his entire body, and held it there for the entire performance. Also providing high-comedy was Paul Featherstone as the continually cuckolded geriatric Menelaus, somehow able to produce successively deeper shades of enraged incredulity to the very end. Let me also commend Jennifer Clark as Bacchus, Catherine Backhouse as Orestes and Charles Johnston as Agamemnon. There were no weak links.   Ben Hall

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.