Presenting fully staged grand opera, sung in English

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

After some general pieces about La Belle Hélène and its creators, I’m very pleased to say that this latest report is more specifically about Bristol Opera’s own current production, which is now up and running and being energetically rehearsed.

Last week we concentrated on the Finale of Offenbach’s first act. All three acts end with a large-scale scene involving all the characters and leading up to a grand climax. In the Act One Finale the scheming Prince Paris is determined to seduce the beautiful Helen – the prize awarded him by Venus, the goddess of love, for choosing her to win the beauty contest among the goddesses and giving her the golden apple as a token of his choice.

Helen is of course aware of this story and knows that the apple is the symbol of Paris’ devotion to Venus. When Paris starts the Finale by revealing his true identity, Helen cannot help exclaiming that he is – in the original French – «l’homme à la pomme»! French is lucky that «homme» and «pomme» can form a neat internal rhyme in one short phrase, so we were keen that English could provide an equally neat alternative. Luckily, it can: «chap» can rhyme with the «ap» in «apple» and create exactly the same effect as the original French words. Instead of involuntarily blurting out «l’homme à la pomme», our Helen can say «Oh dear! Chap with the apple!»

This is important because Helen does not just sing the phrase once. Oh no, she repeats it almost indefinitely in a display of increasingly spectacular vocal fireworks. Offenbach is here observing an operatic convention which no composer in the nineteenth century could ignore and get away with it. This was a device known as a largo concertato, a passage in which the action is held up while the characters express their innermost thoughts to themselves or aside to the audience. Needless to say, Offenbach takes this convention and makes fun of it as only he can. Helen repeats the phrase ever more thrillingly, but Offenbach turns it into a cheesy waltz which sucks in the other characters and the chorus to be Helen’s backing group, oompahing away underneath her stratospheric soprano line. The result is at the same time very operatic in the grand style and extremely silly – typical of the work as a whole, which demands some serious operatic singing but refuses to take itself too seriously!

More next time about what happens when the chap-with-the-apple sequence has burned itself out!

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

I realise that, although I have been endeavouring in these messages to explain what Offenbach and his librettists did to make their story-line so funny and so irreverent, I haven’t yet said a word about any of the music!

So what is it like? Is La Belle Hélène the sort of show where you come out humming the tunes? Oh yes, definitely, and more than that, you’re likely to find the blessed things going round in your head for ever. Offenbach had scraped a living when he first arrived in Paris from Germany by playing the cello in theatre pit bands, so he developed a sound sense of what would actually work.

A French friend of mine arrived in my house not long ago just as my kitchen CD player was blasting out the march to which the Greek Kings make their first appearance. Oh, said my friend, I know this tune from my childhood – it was used in a TV advertisement for toasters!

Would Offenbach have been pleased or appalled to learn the fate of his melody? Probably the former, as he wasn’t averse to his music enjoying commercial success. The march tune is in any case a hugely successful piece of musical theatre, bouncing jauntily along to accompany the very witty words with which the Kings introduce themselves. I defy anyone not to be whistling it the morning after seeing the show.

Two other tunes that are likely to embed themselves in the memory are the seductive waltz sung by Paris as he tells Helen about the beauty contest with the three goddesses [I even have a vintage recording of it sung in Swedish, such is its popularity] and another sweeping waltz tune which turns up in the Act Two Finale, sung first by Helen as she warns her lover Paris to beware the wrath of the Greek Kings and then taken up by the entire company.

Experience these ravishing tunes for yourselves when you see [as I’m sure you will] Bristol Opera’s production and ponder on the fact that Offenbach’s great secret is his ability to write music that you think you’ve heard before even if you haven’t!

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

Last time I set down some thoughts about the way in which Offenbach and his two script-writers Meilhac and Halévy turned serious figures from Greek mythology into comic characters in La Belle Hélène. This time I’m going to continue with this theme and discuss the operetta’s central love interest.

In France in the nineteenth century farce was coming more and more to the fore – farce being the type of comedy in which one false move early on plunges the characters into a situation over which they have less and less control and which forces them to try and keep one step ahead of the game by allowing themselves to be more and more humiliated.

Not surprisingly, the situations in question often involve extra-marital love affairs. The classic comedy plot, which goes back to the Romans, if not further, sees a young and passionate woman married, usually against her will or at any rate with no great enthusiasm, to an unsuitable husband who is old or daft or both and cannot satisfy her between the sheets. A younger, more intelligent and definitely more virile partner is bound to turn up and adultery is on the point of being committed when the two participants are obliged to go into hiding or on the run by the unexpected reappearance of the husband. Actually, it may be the girl’s father, or the boy’s father, or even the boy’s wife, but it’s always someone against whom the naughty couple have offended and whose wrath they need to flee.

Albert Brasseur as Ménélas in La Belle Hélène – 1899

Most people know that one of the key Greek sagas concerns the Trojan War, started by the Greeks to avenge the fact that their Princess Helen was abducted from her husband Menelaus by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. What the script of La Belle Hélène does is to fuse this saga with the archetypal French farce, making Paris into a suave and irresistible seducer, Helen into a woman who is about to explode with sexual frustration and Menelaus into a timid and dithery buffoon. Albert Brasseur, who played the role in the 1899 revival, looks the part to perfection!

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)

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

Greek myths? Who ever wants to see them on the operatic stage? Most people think they’re as stale as yesterday’s bun and only have visions of gloomy singers in togas or long floaty dresses churning out aria after aria in which they overindulge their steamy and turgid emotions.

We in Bristol Opera are currently endeavouring to show that it doesn’t have to be like that and that the old Greek tales can be a lot less dreary. We are doing this with the aid of the composer Jacques Offenbach, the eccentric German cellist who settled in Paris and virtually single-handedly created what we now call operetta – the sort of comic opera with spoken dialogue that relies on catchy tunes, vocal fireworks and crazy situations to wow audiences.

In the 1850s and 60s Offenbach was King. He was known as the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées, a nickname given him by Rossini and he composed one smash hit after another – none more smashing than La Belle Hélène, which will be Bristol Opera’s next production.

Watch this space for more news of what this wildly funny and irreverent opera is all about – and what Bristol Opera is planning to do with it and to it!

Following our auditions held on 18th October, we are excited to announce our first round of casting! We have new singers joining us this year, and we are also welcoming back some familiar faces.

Role Actor
Paris Thomas Edmonds
Menelaus Graham Billing
Agamemnon Timothy Allen
Hélène Rebecca Chellapah
Orestes Clare Daly
Bacchis Ethel-Jane Cormack
Parthenis Katharine Billington
Leona Heather Ashford

Miss the auditions? We are still casting for the remaining roles:

  • Calchas
  • Achilles
  • Ajax 1
  • Ajax 2
  • Philocomos
  • Euthycles
  • First Girl

If you are interested in auditioning for one of these roles, or you would like to join the chorus or help out backstage, you can contact our musical director for more information.

La Belle Hélène is being performed 11th – 13th April at the MacKinnon Theatre.

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