When I reviewed the 1997 Zurich production of La Belle Helène about a week ago the commentariat was strong in the belief that I should take a look at the 2000 Paris-Châtelet production. So I did and they were right. It’s excellent. It also reinforced my belief that operetta; English, French or German, works best when it’s taken seriously by which I mean using the best available singer/actors, a good director and a top notch orchestra, chorus and conductor. All of these are in place in this Paris production.
Laurent Pelly directs. The concept is that Helène is a bourgeoise of a certain age in a dull marriage. She yearns for love which comes to her in the form of a dream in which she is Helen of Sparta. It’s quite important to grasp this idea because, brilliantly as Dame Felicity Lott sings and acts, it’s hard to picture her as “the most beautiful woman in the world”. (She may just have the best French diction in the world though!) Around this Konzept, the bourgeois marital bed prominent throughout Acts 1 and 2, Pelly (and his choreographer Laura Scozzi) creates a very dynamic, high energy production with lots of stage action and plenty of eye candy of both genders. The dialogue is subtly updated to remove Second Empire references that even a Paris audience wouldn’t get today but there is no vulgar injection of modern celebrity humour. Back all this up with a really first rate cast of actor singers and quality dancers and one has a feast for the eye and the ear.
I don’t think there is a weak link in the cast. Besides Dame Felicity there is Yann Beuron as a sweet toned (and buff) tenor Paris, François le Roux and Laurent Naouri as a sort of double act Colchas/Agamemnon, Michel Sénéchal as a confused bourgeois Menelaus and Marie-Ange Todorovitch as a suitably dissolute Orestes. The orchestra and chorus are Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble and Marc Minkowski conducts with appropriately Gallic flair. The result is the perfect balance of operetta pace and humour with grand opera musical values.
The video direction is by Ross MacGibbon and it’s excellent. He’s not afraid to show Pelly’s “big picture” and he is judicious with angles. He’s backed up by a slightly better than average DVD picture (16:9). The sound options are DTS 5.1, DD 5.1 and LPCM stereo. The DTS track is well balanced and vivid. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. The English translation is quite unusually idiomatic. There are bonus interviews with GM Jean-Pierre Brossmann, Minkowski, Pelly and Felicity Lott. They are well worth seeing before watching the performance. Note that I was watching the TDK PAL European release. As far as I can tell the Region 1 release on Kultur doesn’t have the bonuses or the DTS soundtrack.