La Belle Héllène

Jacques Offenbach
English National Opera
London Coliseum
(2006)

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Almost forty years after actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company stripped off for John Barton’s Stratford production of Troilus and Cressida, soloists and chorus of English National Opera are baring, if not all, then a very great deal for Offenbach’s tuneful Parisians burlesque, La Belle Héllène.

Gymnasia around St Martin’s Lane must have been thriving recently as singers usually preoccupied with high c’s turned their attention instead to pectorals and calves! At all events, the result must be deemed well-worthwhile for the singers have produced a display of visual prowess and pulchritude to match any of their customary vocal talents – to say nothing of scenes from the stage of their Gallic friends and rivals across the Channel.

At once it must be said that Dame Felicity Lott, in the title role, eschews such levity, as befits a star of her distinction bearing not only a British title but also those of the French Légion d'Honeur and the Bayrische Kammersängerin. Besides, the plot dictates that the heroine must conceal her beauty from the lusty Paris who, in this manifestation, is a remarkably well-honed Toby Spence, a fine figure indeed with a muscular definition to match his clear, pure tenor.

Lest it be thought that Laurent Pelly’s new production from the Théàtre du Chàtalet has overstepped the mark, I must assure the reader not only that all is in the finest visual traditions of French musical theatre but that, more important, the singing is well up to the fine quality se expect of our English National Opera company.

As is the playing of the orchestra under Emmanuel Joel whose forces clearly delight in the effervescence of this delightful French score.

Peter Van Hulle is a powerful Menelaus with Steven Page in excellent voice as Calchas and the mezzo Leah Marian Jones a nicely contrasting Oresetes. Yet Dame Felicity rules in voice as well as rank since love cannot be denied when it’s only a dream!

There is some particularly fine ensemble work from Martin Merry’s large chorus – one of the largest, in fact, I can remember for some time, even at the Coliseum. And then there are the three svelte maidens who in Act 2 bring the revealing dresses for Helen’s choice only to be rejected despite the fact that their own costumes leave little to imagination.

Act 3 sees almost the entire company in brightly-coloured beachwear – another plus (or should that read “minus”) for director-designer Pelly- as the company shiver on an-off season visit to the resort of Nauplia. This scene produces some of the finest fun as Kit Hesketh Hardy’s English book releases some of its finest treasure. Even Bacchanalian revelry at the Coliseum must have its end

As Paris Flies off, courtesy deus ex machina, with his delighted queen, the small girl immediately in front of me thrills at the happy ending to her first operatic experience, possibly reflecting that adults, after all have a sense of fun and magic.

The production may be seen at The Coliseum on, Thursday 6 April, Saturday 8th April, Thursday 13th April, Wed 19th April, and Fri 21st April, with the final performance on Thurs 27th April.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole