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Jacques Offenbach: La Belle Hélène
Jennifer Larmore (Hélène), Jun-Sang Han (Pâris), Peter Galliard (Ménélas), Viktor Rud (Agamemnon), Rebecca Jo Loeb (Oreste), Doviet Nurgeldiyev (Achille), Sergiu Saplacan (Ajax I), Benjamin Popson (Ajax II), Christian Miedl (Calchas), Anat Edri (Bacchis), Renate Spingler (Léœna), Gabriele Rossmanith (Parthœnis), Marcus Richardt (Video Director), Hartmut Bender (Video Producer), Renaud Doucet (Stage Director and Choreographer), André Barbe (Set and Costume Designer), Guy Simard (Lighting Designer), Gerrit Priessnitz (Conductor), Philarmoniker Hamburg, Hamburgischen Staatsoper Chorus, Eberhard Friedrich (Chorus Master)
A production of FAVO Film on behalf of NDR with ARTE and UNITEL CLASSICA
Recorded live at the Staatsoper Hamburg, Germany on October 2 and 5, 2014 – 117
C Major Entertainment DVD # 730908 or Blu-ray # 731004 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English, German and French – Subtitles available in French, German, English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese

Under the Barbe & Doucet direction, this Hamburg Opera turns Jacques Offenbach’s opéra-bouffe upside down into a “mod” version by contemporizing the mythological take of self-imbued Helen of Sparta as she’s swept off her feet by Pâris, Prince of Troy. While this La Belle Hélène has some strong qualities, many factors seem to drag it down…the overall vein is cheesy and trite.

Though this time warp is blatantly stultifying, André Barbe visually softens the counter-culture-isms like a well-designed pastel colored cake: rivets looking like sugared dots, Jupiter Stator’s beige tiered cruise ship stages all of the outrageously wild garbs of Easter egg softness (with flecks of bold texturing) that’s iced over by status-quo Offenbachian melodies and sprinkled with “hip” go-go boot-laden pom-pom dancers.

The “Ouverture” establishes itself as a musical preamble, segueing Hélène’s sudden, uneventful collapse into a psychedelic parody. Looking a bit like Carol Channing at times, one of the production’s strongest attributes is Jennifer Larmore. She fittingly slips into the role as Hélène with broad satirical accentuations and comedic effects. The mezzo voice pleasantly emphasizes matronly qualities, yet simultaneously sparkles with hilarious grace and percolating pizzazz. Especially amusing is her Act III closing when she epitomizes the image of a true operatic “diva.”

The same can’t be said about Jun-Sang Han. While he has the capacity to innocuously appear like a puckish imp, the singing is unremarkable and erring on the flat side…he struggles with the high notes, especially in his aria, “Le Jugement de Pâris.” But he’s so cute, so we easily forgive.

An Austin Powers’ lookalike, Rebecca Jo Loeb’s trouser take as Oreste brings some of the best catchy tunes in the score. Salacious in approach, her buttery tones float nicely through the gondolier-like barcarolle, “Vénus au fond de notre âme” whilst bathing beauties engage in some synchronized swimming inside a pool filled with blue balls. Peter Galliard as Hélèn’s husband, Ménélas, is a just buffoonish gaffe.

Since Doucet places La Belle Hélène in an era of the Vietnam War, the taboos, nonetheless, are beyond reproach: Hélène has a vibrator, a “69” labels the boudoir door, Flower-Power and topless women hit the stage while Jimi Hendrix (alias Pâris) hands out joints, Ménélas’ male servant macrames a jock strap while both the latter and soothsayer, Calchas, are actually gay. A Hamburg native, Angela Merkel’s snarky appearance with a wheelbarrow in tow (full of Euros to signify Greece’s financial crisis), is likely to evoke a laugh or two…for some.

Basta. A little goes a long way: Doucet gets too absorbed in overstepping operatic edginess and ridiculousness. Sadly, Jacques Offenbach’s effervescent music gets sidelined by the dawdling and plodding outline.

Christie Grimstad




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