La Belle Hélène

Artist René Leibowitz
Title La Belle Hélène
Release Date Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Genre Opera > Opera
Copyright © Preiser Records

Promotion Text

Paperback Opera

La Belle Hélène (Helen of Troy), produced in 1865, marks the midpoint of Jacques Offenbach’s creative life of twenty-five years. During that time and ending in 1880, this amazingly prolific and unfailingly charming and zestful composer fathered ninety works. Most of them are light satiric farces, but few have as much undated wit and sparkle as La Belle Hélène. The text is the work of Meilhac and Halévy who a few years later were to collaborate on the libretto of Carmen. In the latter work, they proved themselves masters of melodrama, but here they turn out the lightest of soufflés, seasoned ever so cleverly with mockery of the classics and of contemporary fads and fancies. They see the Homeric figures through the cynical eyes of the Second Empire Court which counted nothing sacred, which judged all ages as a reflection of their own, and which had no faith in the honesty of anyone’s motives. The debunking that is the result of such thinking is vastly shrewd and entertaining and must have been doubly so to an audience which was forcibly indoctrinated with the classics both in school and in the French national theatre. They would have found the double entendres, and the reversal of original roles and motivations delightful especially since every clever allusion was crystal clear and since the buffoonery must have had a somewhat sacrilegious element. We meet the heroes of Greek myth but not in a military framework. They are braggarts and cowards and get excited only at the prospect of losing money. Agamemnon, who paid with his life partly because he brought Cassandra home with him from Troy, is a pompous puritan. Menelaus is a boring dolt and born cuckold. Achilles proves in his person the superiority of brawn over brain. The Ajaxes are platitudinous braggarts. Paris is a vacuous matinée idol. Orestes, who with Oedipus and Electra, is one of antiquity`s pet problem children has a psychopathic compulsion here not for murder but for wine, women, and song. Calchas, the sober soothsayer, becomes a traditional figure of priestly rascality – contriving miracles, abetting moral transgressions, greedy for a penny. Helen herself, the woman of mystery in myth, becomes a typical bourgeoise, bored with a stuffy husband, vain and empty-headed, shrewdly able to alk herself out of any situation, shrugging off responsibility for her peccadilloes because they are the inescapable workings of Fate. To add spice to all this, there are pointed remarks about German music and Greek card sharps; there are Homeric epithets in comical juxtaposition with modern slang, a “dream” situation straight out of Boccaccio, Agamemnon doing the can-can, and a glamorous tableau as a finale – an embarkation for Cythera à la Watteau.