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!