Great moments in opera: La belle Hélène

August 2, 2011

Jacques Offenbach’s La belle Hélène is a nineteenth-century parody of nineteenth-century opera, drawing on mythological themes (in this case, the instigation of the Trojan War by Paris’ abduction of Helen), and making use of grand opera’s musical idiom, but salting the whole affair with absurdity and light humour. It is a good example of Offenbach’s small scale opéra bouffe, by means of which he endeared himself to fun-loving and perhaps somewhat decadent Parisian audiences.

It would be a stretch to call this a great opera, and, although the music is always tuneful and engaging, it would likewise be a stretch to say that any of it is truly top shelf. There is a fair bit of talking between numbers — Offenbach did not compose recitative — and sometimes these conversational bits are a drag, but, nonetheless, when the music starts it falls easily on the ear, and gives much enjoyment.

Here is the finale of the second of the three acts. Helen’s husband, Menelaus, has just discovered her in their bedroom with Paris, but, by an artful maneuver, they turn the blame for the scandal on Menelaus himself. (“What? It’s my fault?” he exclaims at the beginning of this clip.) Vesselina Kasarova sings Helen, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts.

(There are both French and English subtitles here, but in order to see them fully I believe you’ll have to hit the “full screen” button on the bottom right.)

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