Presenting fully staged grand opera, sung in English

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

The Act Two Finale of La Belle Hélène continues – after the bizarre sequence in which the main characters imitate musical instruments – with the tables being turned on poor old Menelaus. Helen launches into an attack on her feckless husband for not being discreet or sensitive enough to hang back from barging in on her when she was entertaining her gentleman caller. This attack takes the form of a jaunty little song in two verses, very much in the tradition of the music-hall.

After that, however, Offenbach ratchets up this finale into a large-scale ensemble for the whole company, as everyone except Helen turns against the insolent interloper Paris and orders him to leave Sparta. Act Two, like Act One, ends with a major character being hustled out of the action, but this time the mood is much darker and edgier. Helen is of course keen for Paris to stay but regretfully tells him that it is politically tactful for him to disappear. She expresses her emotions in one of Offenbach’s most seductive tunes, a ravishing waltz which forms the basis of the musical structure that concludes the act.

Offenbach though, like Sullivan after him, had the great gift of being able to introduce a totally different melody and then dazzle the audience by proving that it is perfectly possible to sing both tunes at the same time. Those of you who know your G&S may well recall the great scene in HMS Pinafore in which the ship’s crew sing a jolly shanty at the same time as their lady visitors simper a demure little polka-like chorus. That sort of effect would not have been possible had not the practice been established by Offenbach in scenes like this one. Agamemnon changes the musical and dramatic mood by singing a spiky little number very much like a G&S patter song and the other characters antagonistic to Paris join in. It is not long before this is pitted against Helen’s silky waltz and it is also not long before the 3/4 time gives way to a final section in a more urgent 4/4. The finale this comes to a spectacular close.

It is still not too late to grab your tickets for Bristol Opera’s La Belle Hélène. Rehearsals are really hotting up now, but before performance week look out for some more information on this site about the operetta’s third and final act.       

Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.

Last time I was telling you about the first of the three grandiose finales with which ends each of the acts of Bristol Opera’s latest challenge, La Belle Hélène. After the bizarre ensemble in which Helen recognises Prince Paris as her would-be seducer, the «chap with the apple», Paris is needless to say keen to get Helen’s wretched husband Menelaus out of the way and enlists the support of Calchas the High Priest of Jupiter. Calchas has the opportunity to try out his thunder machine and the music becomes appropriately dramatic as he sets up a scam to persuade Menelaus that he is the oracle through which Jupiter is issuing a decree.

In Jupiter’s voice he orders Menelaus to go on holiday to Crete for a month and the music works its way back into the ear-worm tune of the entry of the Kings as Helen’s put-upon spouse is bundled off on a boat.

If you thought the Act One finale was a tour de force, wait till you hear what Offenbach comes up with to round off Act Two. The Kings are all extremely lit up after an official banquet and are quite surprised to be called away from their revelling by Menelaus, who has returned from Crete unexpectedly to find Helen entertaining Paris in a totally inappropriate way! He is making a truly embarrassing scene, which erupts into the most bizarre episode in the opera. Paris, Orestes, Helen’s companion Bacchis, Calchas and the four Kings launch into an ensemble in which they all make sounds imitating musical instruments – violins, cellos, trumpets and drums. Why on earth does Offenbach make them do this? The sequence bounces them away from the plot completely and, although it is very funny, it does leave modern audiences somewhat mystified. I say modern audiences, because this was an operatic convention in the nineteenth century which composers felt obliged to observe. The master of the device, whereby the action is temporarily suspended while the soloists indulge in some wacky special vocal effects, was Offenbach’s great predecessor Rossini and it seems likely that Offenbach was deliberately following in the great man’s footsteps.

When you see Bristol Opera’s production – as I’m sure you will, tickets being currently available – listen out for the strange band in the middle of the Act Two Finale and watch this space for what happens after it.