Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.
The Act Two Finale of La Belle Hélène continues – after the bizarre sequence in which the main characters imitate musical instruments – with the tables being turned on poor old Menelaus. Helen launches into an attack on her feckless husband for not being discreet or sensitive enough to hang back from barging in on her when she was entertaining her gentleman caller. This attack takes the form of a jaunty little song in two verses, very much in the tradition of the music-hall.
After that, however, Offenbach ratchets up this finale into a large-scale ensemble for the whole company, as everyone except Helen turns against the insolent interloper Paris and orders him to leave Sparta. Act Two, like Act One, ends with a major character being hustled out of the action, but this time the mood is much darker and edgier. Helen is of course keen for Paris to stay but regretfully tells him that it is politically tactful for him to disappear. She expresses her emotions in one of Offenbach’s most seductive tunes, a ravishing waltz which forms the basis of the musical structure that concludes the act.
Offenbach though, like Sullivan after him, had the great gift of being able to introduce a totally different melody and then dazzle the audience by proving that it is perfectly possible to sing both tunes at the same time. Those of you who know your G&S may well recall the great scene in HMS Pinafore in which the ship’s crew sing a jolly shanty at the same time as their lady visitors simper a demure little polka-like chorus. That sort of effect would not have been possible had not the practice been established by Offenbach in scenes like this one. Agamemnon changes the musical and dramatic mood by singing a spiky little number very much like a G&S patter song and the other characters antagonistic to Paris join in. It is not long before this is pitted against Helen’s silky waltz and it is also not long before the 3/4 time gives way to a final section in a more urgent 4/4. The finale this comes to a spectacular close.
It is still not too late to grab your tickets for Bristol Opera’s La Belle Hélène. Rehearsals are really hotting up now, but before performance week look out for some more information on this site about the operetta’s third and final act.