LABELS: C Major
ALBUM TITLE: La belle Hélène
WORKS: La belle Hélène
PERFORMER: Jennifer Larmore, Jun-Sang Han, Peter Galliard, Viktor Rud; Hamburg State Opera Choir; Hamburg Philharmonic/Gerrit Priessnitz; dir. Renaud Doucet & André Barbe (Hamburg, 2014)
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 730908; Blu-ray: 731004;
A cruise ship, the Jupiter, is moored; a young man with a head of golden curls catches an apple; a woman passenger collapses and is stretchered up the gangplank. She is Hélène, he is Paris and the Jupiter a version of television’s The Love Boat. In Renaud Doucet and André Barbe’s production for the Hamburg Staatsoper, Offenbach’s La belle Hélène takes a trip back to the 1960s. You can almost smell the patchouli oil and feel the crushed velvet. Is Hélène and Paris’s story perhaps a dream conjured out of a giant spliff, the dream of love that Hélène asks for from Calchas, the High Priest?
Be that as it may, the flower power costumes in shrieking primary colours, a troupe of sexually ambivalent dancers and the general air of polymorphous perversity that seems to grip the entire passenger list rather blunts the edge of Offenbach and his librettists’ critique of 19th-century sexual hypocrisy. Menelaus is the kind of overweight German who according to the English gets his towel on the beach at first light; Agamemnon struts about in gold lamé jogging pants; Orestes is a version of the singer Tiny Tim; and his vengeful sister Elektra prowls the deck with an axe in her hand.
Jennifer Larmore is a handsome Hélène who offers Paris and indeed anyone with eyes to see the promise of pneumatic bliss. Her singing is careful and characterful until a last act cadenza, which comes from and goes to nowhere. It was a brave decision to cast Jun-Sang Han as Paris. Handsome to look at and funny too, he never quite gets the vocal measure of the role. It’s lyric, not dramatic. Good things happen in the pit but if you want a genuinely belle Hélène, then it has to be Marc Minkowski and Laurent Pelly’s DVD with Felicity Lott. Christopher Cook