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!