The last time I saw a performance of Offenbach's operetta La Belle Hélène, I described it as "moderately funny". I wouldn't be so dismissive of the English National Opera's witty and sexy production.
To elaborate ... Tone can be difficult to get right with something that effectively is making light comedy out of the start of a war that killed thousands - it's a bit like a frothy musical about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But the ENO manage it pretty well, by more-or-less ignoring the consequences of Helen's abduction. Offenbach pretty much does this himself (though he could trust his audience to be familiar with the tale anyway) - he concentrates on applying to the story of Helen and Paris the mores of Second Empire France, where to be a cuckolded husband was not so much a shame as an occupational hazard.
Kit Hesketh-Harvey provides an English book and libretto that is full of the sort of with that will appeal to Radio Four listeners, and that's no bad thing. I was particularly amused by Agamemnon asserting his superiority through song because he is 'polysyllabic', whilst the two Ajaxes proclaim how full of 'vim' they are (a joke that will probably pass by anyone under thirty). There are, however, some truly terrible puns.
On the sexiness side, Orestes' two courtesans, Leona and Parthenis, are suitably lithe and underdressed. Orestes being played by a woman allows the Sapphic frisson that cross-dressing usually brings. This is not to say that the production appeals on this level only to heterosexual males. Paris appears with his shirt off quite a lot, and at one point quite gratuitously wearing nothing but a towel. When the dancers dressed in swimsuits introduce the third act, it's not clear if the wolf-whistles are male or female.
Helen herself is played by Dame Felicity Lott. I confess I don't usually think of Helen as in her late fifties, though one can still see why Paris should want to bed this Helen. But it's actually a solution to the perpetual problem of casting the role, which I've gone on about in this blog before. By casting someone like Lott, who looks good for her years, the production can suggest that in her prime this truly was the most beautiful woman in the world. And it lends Helen's quest for love an air of quiet desperation. This is a woman who has been ground down by decades in a loveless marriage to a man who has grown old, fat and bald. And no doubt snores.
The costume designer certainly had fun. This staging opens in Helen's bedroom, and so costuming through much of the first two acts has a nightwear theme - not just Helen's negligee, but the Greek kings' armour on top of pyjamas. Calchas, meanwhile, is dressed in half civil service suit (literally - it has been divided lengthways) and half priestly robes. In the final Act, set at the resort of Nauplia, a variety of beachwear is seen.
What struck me most about this production is how well sung it is. This is especially true of the large Chorus, who have clearly worked hard on their harmonies. Most of the solo performances are also top class.
Finally, a word in praise of the programme - one of the better ones I've seen, with a number of interesting articles in it....
Just before this show started I realized that Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, performers of the version of the Odyssey staged as part of the Brighton Festival, were the people who had received the 2006 Classical Association Prize, and whose interpretation of the Iliad I had seen at the CA Conference in Newcastle (which I meant to blog but didn't). I should have realized this before, but I don't have my wits much about me these days.
A review of the Conference in the latest issue of CA News has the following complaint about Lupton and Morden, "why, oh why, did they have to 'improve' Homer?", followed by a list of points at which their version differs from Homer. This strikes me as a bit of a silly complaint. I'm sure that Lupton and Morden weren't setting out to improve Homer, but like any artists, they want to do their own version of the story. Othewise, what is the point - they might just as well stand up and read out Lattimore's translation. As I've said before, Classicists do themselves no favours if they act as if these stories must be frozen in aspic in the manner in which Homer told them, thus denying modern writers the creative freedom that brought the Iliad and Odyssey into existence in the first place. No Greek would have thought like that.
In The Odyssey, as with The Iliad, Lupton and Morden present a simply staged retelling of the story,with just one or the other one speaking at length to the audience - in this redition Morden takes the role of Odysseus as he relates his wanderings to the Phaeacians, whilst Lupton narrates ther hero's arrival on Phaeacia's shores and his return to Ithaca. In the X-Box age something this stark is held to be beyond our attention spans, especially those of children. But Lupton and Morden show that this is not true. They achieve this partly through some of the effects Homer himself used - the use of key repeated phrases, and attention-concentrating details.
If you get the chance to see them, take it.