, February 2009
Minkowski’s sparkling Belle Hélène arrives afresh on DVD from Arthaus. The production has become something of a legend since it was premiered but it still has the power to delight and enthral. The production’s power comes from the way so many different elements, which could have clashed horribly, come together to create a perfect ensemble piece. Minkowski, for example, shines in this music. He was already well known as an interpreter of the Baroque before he took on this production, but his love of the “authentic” is perhaps the key to the zing which he brings to the music here. The pacing is sharp and foot-tapping, with a vibrant drive to the music which never drags but sparkles throughout. Similarly, his orchestra take to this music like ducks to water, and the frequent solo contributions are played lovingly. They take the music as seriously as it demands without ever losing touch with the comedy.
Laurent Pelly is surely the hottest director on the French scene today. His productions do not always make integrated sense: why, for example, is the setting for Helen’s bedroom in Act 2 also the site of an archaeological excavation? But we forgive him all the anachronisms for the sheer sense of fun which pervades his work. His central idea is that the Helen is a 21st century housewife, bored and sexually starved, who falls asleep and dreams of being the most beautiful woman in the world. The whole opera takes place as her dream. This works particularly well in Act 1, though the concept seems to fade as the opera progresses and there is no return to the “real” world at the end. It’s also a neat way of explaining away Felicity Lott’s rather advanced age for playing Helen of Sparta! Pelly mingles the authentic with the aggressively modern: the chorus appear in classical robes as the priests of Jupiter, then reappear as tourists on a Greek cruise, before stripping off to their swim gear for the beaches of Nauplia at the end. During the dream sequence of Act 2 a flock of sheep appear on stage to be counted. It’s all thoroughly absurd, but perfectly in keeping with Offenbach’s intentions in sending up not just the mythological story but the government of his time.
The best thing about this DVD, however, is the performances of the central role. At the heart of everything is Dame Felicity Lott’s Helen who anchors the whole production. She looks marvellous in the array of costumes she is given and as well as singing she acts brilliantly. Her body language conveys her crushing suburban boredom in the Prologue, while she becomes the girlish coquette when she meets Paris for the first time. Her singing also conveys every emotion needed for this character. She leads a surprisingly moving address to Adonis in Act 1, and convinces in her plea for “more love”. Her invocation to Venus in Act 2 is coy and winning, while her dream sequence is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. She is as close to perfection in this role as one could hope to see or hear and we should be grateful to the Châtelet for preserving her performance. Next to her is the seductive Yann Beuron as Paris. His light, smooth tenor is just right for this young seducer and his acting is just as convincing, even when he is wrapped in a towel! His Mount Ida aria in Act 1 is beautifully mellifluous. François Le Roux’s Calchas is authoritative when he needs to be, but bad tempered and petulant when called for, as in Act 3 when someone suggest calling for another priest. The kings have glorious comic turns, led by Laurent Naouri’s Agamemnon who enjoys camping it up in the spirit of the production. What a treat to have Michel Sénéchal’s Menelaus too. He fits easily into the role of the irritable bourgeois husband who is petulant, tetchy and protective, but he never loses sight of the comedy at the heart of the piece.
This is a great production of a tremendously fun piece: it sits worthily alongside Laurent Pelly’s other Offenbach productions and should be savoured by any fan of the composer.