Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.
Last time I said that part of the audience appeal of La Belle Hélène lies in the way in which the script pokes fun at ancient Greek myths and the fact that the French have always taken them so seriously. Let’s take two of the main characters in the show and explore what happens to them when they get swept into Offenbach’s crazy world.
These two characters are the Greeks’ great ruler and general Agamemnon, known as the King of Kings, and his son Orestes. The French would have known about them not just from studying ancient Greek writers such as Aeschylus and Euripides, but because they both turn up in plays by the great French tragedian Jean Racine.
Tragedian… Well, yes, Racine seized on the fact that Agamemnon and Orestes are both victims of the most appalling fate. Agamemnon led the Greeks into the devastating Trojan War and did not even stop at sacrificing his own daughter Iphigenia to the sea-god Poseidon in return for a favourable wind to take the Greek fleet to Troy. After ten years of fighting, he returned home, only to be murdered in his bath by his wife Clytemnestra in revenge for his willingness to kill their child.
Young Orestes, his son, was now placed by the gods in an impossible no-win situation. On the one hand they imposed on him the sacred duty of avenging the death of a parent by killing that parent’s killer; on the other they would condemn him for the appalling offence of killing a parent, since one of his parents had killed the other. After much soul-searching, Orestes did avenge his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover, but the gods punished him with insanity brought on by guilt, in the form of being haunted by the horrific spirits called the Furies.
Grim stuff, eh? Not in the hands of Offenbach and his two script-writers. They turn Agamemnon into a pompous and sarcastic establishment figure, whose only weakness is that he is scared stiff of the nagging wife he always manages to escape. And their pre-war Orestes is a precocious teenage party animal who celebrates all night with a gang of bad girls and is always trying to wheedle more pocket money out of his father. To emphasise just how precocious – and immature – their Orestes is, they decree that he should be played by a young and wacky soprano, thus becoming one of the first ever principal boys – or, if you prefer, examples of gender-fluid casting.
Irreverent and impudent? Definitely!
Banner images left to right: Ève Lavallière as Orestes (1889), statue of Orestes, Agamemnon’s mask, Victor Sandstedt as Agamemnon (1865)