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.