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A Charming Abduction

St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts
04/27/2018 -  & April, 28, 29*, 2018
Jacques Offenbach: The Beautiful Helen
David Boan (Achilles), Gregory Finney (Menelaus), Adam Fisher (Paris), Stuart Graham (Agamemnon), Cian Horrobin (Orestes), Lynn Isnar (Daphne), Beste Kalender (Helen), Cian Horrobin (Orestes), Lynn Istar (Daphne), Yervant Khatchadourian (Grecian), Austin Larusson (Ajax A), Yujene Oh (Chloe, Jocant, Second Maid), Kimberley-Rose Pefhany (Leona, First Maid), Anthony Rodrigues (Ajax B), Mathew Zadow (Calchas)
Toronto Operetta Theatre Chorus, Orchestra, Peter Tiefenbach (Conductor)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (Stage Director, Lighting Design & Set Décor)

A. Fisher, B. Kalender (© Gilberto Prioste)

Opera in the vernacular, once the most common way it was heard worldwide, is almost taboo nowadays. As late as the 1990s, non-German operas were sung in Goethe’s tongue throughout Germany’s opera houses with the exception of that country’s top companies in its biggest most cosmopolitan cities. I remember a sold-out Turandot in Nuremberg where the enthusiastic public enjoyed “Niemand schläft” rather than “Nessun dorma”. Understanding what is happening on stage, without twisting one’s neck and constantly reading surtitles, makes the experience more natural. The energy in Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela and Vienna’s Volksoper, where people listen to operettas in their native tongue, is hard to match. In our age of alleged purism where the omission of a boring passage is an affront and a deviation from the Urtext is a crime, singing in the vernacular is deemed uncouth. Surtitles have indeed revolutionized opera, though they may have somewhat destroyed it too. Many come out of a performance with a sore neck as they were constantly reading the surtitles, which must come at the expense of watching the action on stage and concentrating on enjoying the singing and the staging. I find that opera in translation is a valid option, especially for comic operas and operettas. In North America, even in major theatres, comic operas are rarely a pleasure due to the stage director’s effort of overdoing the “comedy”. This is often necessary when the public, busy with the surtitles, is only partially involved. My most enjoyable Così fan tutte ever was in Brescia, a provincial Italian town, where the public was totally in sync with the brilliant plot. No shaking of behinds and goofing was needed to involve and enchant the public.

Toronto Operetta Theatre’s English language adaptation of La Belle Hélène was a case in point. Thanks to Offenbach’s vastly superior music, the risk of The Beautiful Helen sounding like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas is greatly reduced. The story is based on Homer’s mythological story of the abduction of Helen, the most beautiful woman on Earth, by Paris, a shepherd who is actually the long lost son of Troy’s king Priam. This is his recompense for choosing the Goddess Aphrodite (Venus) over her two rivals Hera (Juno) and Athena (Minerva) in the “Judgement of Paris” where he had to give the apple to the most beautiful of the three goddesses. The problem is that Helen is already married to the King of Sparta, Menelaus. The operetta opens with the joyous assembly of the kings of Greece: Menelaus of Sparta, his brother Agamemnon of Mycenae, Ajax the Great of Salamis, Ajax the Lesser, King of the Locrians, and Achilles, a demi-god and King of Phthiostis. For a mysterious reason, Offenbach’s plot has one character that ought not to be there: Orestes, son of King Agamemnon. For those who may remember their Homer or Richard Strauss’s Elektra, Orestes was disposed of as a baby by his mother Clytemnestra to prevent the prophecy of the son killing his mother, which of course he eventually does. The prince, brought up in the forest by his tutor, never met his father and returned to Mycenae only to avenge his father’s death.

La Belle Hélène premiered in 1864, at the height of Napoleon III’s decadent Second French Empire. Offenbach’s works were tremendously successful thanks to his appealing melodies, his spoofing of a sacred cow such as Greek Mythology, today forgotten by most but then a fundamental part of any education, and most of all for his using historic settings to disguise the political scandals of the day. Gods and mythological heroes represented the day’s rulers and potentates. Some productions of Offenbach operettas choose to emulate this virulent critique of local contemporary politics. Mercifully, this was not stage director Guillermo Silva-Marin’s choice. This operetta is strong enough to stand on its musical merits. Too many local references usually seem forced and unnatural. A minimal updating was made with funny, though not over the top, references, such as Paris’s answer to the riddle being “Facebook profile”. The staging was graceful: sparse sets that did not really look like ancient Greece, visually pleasant costumes in the ancient Greek style and droll moments as written in the operetta without superimposed jokes. Comedy is funniest when it is underplayed.

The two leads were excellent actors and singers and had the right voices for their roles. Turkish-Canadian mezzo Beste Kalender, as Helen, has a seductive timbre and well placed voice. Her opening aria, “Amours divins, ardentes flames”, was charming and she managed in her deportment to convey her royal rank. Her second act aria, “Invocation de Vénus”, was luscious and charmingly expressed her yearnings as well as her ennui with an inadequate spouse. Adam Fisher as Paris is a natural on stage with a solid tenor though his high notes were not always well supported. Fisher’s opening aria, “Au Mont Ida, trois déesses”, recounting the Judgement of Paris, announced the shepherd-prince’s light-hearted personality. His Act III aria, “Et tout d’abord, ô vile multitude”, an amusing Tyrolienne with quasi-yodling was hilarious. Without charisma from the two leads, the operetta would not take off. Luckily, they have it in abundance. Their duet, “C’est le Ciel qui m’envoie”, a waltz musically evocative of passages in Offenbach’s masterpiece, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, was delightful and appropriately playful. Paris makes love to Helen convincing her it’s a dream and hence not an act of infidelity. Baritone Gregory Finney, an ideal Menelaus, has a natural comic verve. The voice is not the most resounding, but it does not need to be for this role where acting matters most. In the Act II finale, “Soit, mais vous allez me venger”, the cuckolded king’s protestations were hilarious without being ridiculous. Some of the delicious puns in the original text were obviously lost. The supporting cast was quite strong, with good acting and more than adequate voices. David Boan as Achilles and Stuart Graham as Agamemnon stood out. The first act finale, “Voici les Rois”, a procession of the Greek kings, was brilliant, allowing each king or hero to differentiate himself and succinctly demonstrate his personality. Kudos to conductor Peter Tiefenbach and the small ensemble of nine musicians, in lieu of a full orchestra, who played with panache and managed to sound like a larger ensemble.

Ossama el Naggar



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