Jacques Offenbach: La Belle Helene (1864)

Opera bouffe en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours.

It is I, Phil, the ContraPoints of opera reviewers! I am always doing tragedies it seems! Why did no one tell me that it has been twenty-one months since my review of Maskarade! Well, here is something a little lighter for once, an Offenbach operetta on a mythological theme, but nevertheless a comedy. This one is for you, Nick!

SETTING: Sparta and the shores of the Aegean, before the Trojan War. Helene (mezzo-soprano) is the wife of Menelaus (tenor) and the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris (tenor), Prince of Troy, comes to seduce her, and does in what Helene thinks is actually a dream. When they are caught, and Paris is expelled from the palace, Venus helps him to recover Helene through a trap: a demand for the ritual sacrifice of 100 heifers at her temple at Cythera, and Helene sails away with Paris to Troy. The story, and cast, is padded out with the kings of various Greek city states (along with the son of Agamemnon (baritone), Orestes (counter-tenor), who when he is not totally drunk thinks his aunt is too horny) and their rather odd, if amusing, party games.

WARNING: Video contains graphic Aphroditic déshabillé (because unlike ContraPoints, I actually do speak French!)


ACT 1: The palace of Menelaus at Sparta. (50 minutes)

2: Vers tes autels After the adequate if un-assuming bit of orchestral preluding, we come upon the opening chorus *.

8: Amours divins Helene gets her first solo **, a simple but effective piece with a rather small range (C4 to F5), much of it addressing Venus, the woman who is about to make her life complicated. Understated.

14: C’est Parthoénis et Léoena The entrance of Orestes ** where he proves to be a combination of Mickey Mouse and a tuneful sex-maniac. Also, am I the only one detecting traces of Meyerbeer? Paris then arrives and gives/gets 20 questions to/from Calchas (bass) high priest of Jupiter.

21: Au mont Ida Paris recounts how he judged Venus to be the most beautiful of the three Olympian goddesses, and now she owes him the most beautiful woman in the world, which, depending on how you interpret her birth, means her half-sister Helene has to foot the bill. This is actually the most attractive number in the score ***, although I am not so convinced that Venus is really the most beautiful, more the most opportunistic and willing to put out. Helene and Paris meet in a melodrama section (instrumental, no singing, turning into a bizarre dialogue in which she tries to make him seem unattractive but can not get her mind off of how this shepherd dude is so sexy!).

28: Voici les rois de la Grece! The kings arrive in style ** to a march tune. There are the two Ajax (the tenor is fat and the baritone is ripped, get it?), then Achilles (tenor), Menelaus (tenor, the most inept), and finally his brother Agamemnon (baritone), who, in dialogue, makes references to shepherds which makes Helene horny. Menelaus reads out a series of word games for the others: after some of the kings make self-incriminations of homosexuality, Paris arrives and solves all of the word puzzles with the word: locomotive, which Achilles then claims was his guess, to which Paris retorts that it will not even exist for another 4000 years!

40: Gloire au berger victorieux Act finale: Paris is triumphant and reveals his true identity as the son of King Priam **. Helene goes berserk to what can only be described as a comic parody of bel canto display, only for mezzo. She crowns Paris victor. In an aside, Paris bribes Calchas, rather ever-present through the act, to pronounce a fake prophesy demanding that Menelaus go to Crete immediately (in order to get rid of him so Paris can seduce and kidnap Helene).

ACT 2: The chambers of Helene. (38 minutes)

0: The entr’acte would be uneventful if not for the reoccurrence of that golden tune from the Judgement **.

3: O Reine, en ce jour A placid feminine chorus opens the act *.

8: On me nom Helene la blonde Helene prays to Venus for some relief in the form of good dreams **. Paris comes on and insults her, claiming that there is some woman named Penelope (of course, it is always a woman named Penelope) who is more beautiful than Helene. He leaves, but the other kings, along with Orestes and his courtesans pop in to make jokes about Lydia and the Swan (Zeus conceived Helene with Lydia while in the form of a swan, get it?). Helene continues to whine to Calchas. She decides to go to sleep. A series of comedic numbers involving games and jokes by the supporting cast are replaced by about two minutes of an octet.

17: The seduction scene, as Paris stealths his way into the bed of the sleeping Helene ***.

20: Oui c’est un rêve The climactic love duet *** as Helene awakens, although still thinks she is dreaming, and makes love to Paris. He keeps telling her that it is all a dream in order to get her to submit, although it is possible that, given that she thinks it is all a dream, she secretly wants it. Suddenly, Menelaus returns and finds Paris on top of his wife, and Helene realizes that, in fact, it has not all been just a dream!

29: A moi! Rois de la Grèce, à moi! Menelaus calls everyone else in to what can only be described as a parody of comic opera. Paris starts performing arpeggios, Orestes starts a queer drinking song, and everyone blames Menelaus for catching Helene with Paris. Helene tells him that a wise husband knows to stay away while his wife is cheating. It is only with the return of the Judgement theme (brief) which strengths the scene **. Finally Paris is forced to leave and the curtain falls on Menelaus.

ACT 3: The Aegean Coast. (33 minutes)

0: The entr’acte is mild *, nothing to be overtly interested in. Venus does a striptease, that is all. Menelaus comes on and we realize what the goddess has been up to. To escape what happened at Sparta, Helene and Menelaus have fled to the Aegean shore, but Venus has made everyone there super horny all the time!

5: Vénus au fond de nos âmes After a chorus of horny beachgoers (I can not believe that I just wrote that!) Orestes rides a dog while singing a song honouring Venus **. It is like watching a bisexual Mickey Mouse on angel dust pounding one out at a Hellenic themed Rio Mardi Gras, but it works!

11: Là vrai, je ne suis pas coupable Helene comically protests her innocence *.

14: Lorsque la Grèce est un champ de carnage A Greek national anthem for Menelaus, Agamemnon, and Calchas *. This number requires good acting, the music is just okay, but with the right comedic timing from the trio of actor/singers it can come off much better.

22: La galère de Cythère The arrival of the High Priest of Venus (first joyous, then repentant) ** is followed by a long choral-aria for the High Priest involving yodelling (the number is marked tyrolienne). The High Priest demands a sacrifice from Helene of 100 heifers, and protests that he is gay. Menelaus is not interested in going to the temple at Cythera, where apparently orgies take place.

29: Elle vient! The finale ** as Helene appears and is ready to go to Cythera, or rather Troy, with Paris. The number includes a rehash of all of the evening hits as the curtain falls and the Trojan War begins.


La belle Helene is what would happen if Carol Burnett made sex comedies on Greek mythological subjects scripted by Racine and commissioned a Jewish composer to give her one solidly great tune for Harvey Norman to sing (he was a tenor after all). Throw in a Mickey Mouse impersonator, a bumbling cuckold, a bit part for Vicki Lawrence, and the entire cast on psychedelic drugs, and you have yourself an episode of a hit comedy variety series. The result is surprisingly more successful than what one would think at first reading, although it does come with a lot of filler. Apart from that one rather-wisely reoccurring tune, and one for Orestes, the best music falls in the middle of act two during the seduction/dream sequence. The rest, however, rather reminds one of vaudeville, and yes, I get the irony since both the word and genre are originally French. I think the reason why the comedy goes over my head is the same reason why the French (and not the Americans) get Jerry Lewis. Although it is interesting to know that the French have gay jokes that are similar to ones common to the Anglosphere. So enjoy the campy romp I have provided, children, it is back to tragedy next month! Alpha minus.

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