Odyssey Opera's "Belle Helene": Near Myth

The Ensemble of "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

La Belle Helene, an 1864 opera bouffe with Music by Jacques Offenbach and Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is a parody of the myth of the historical Helen of Troy, taking place in Sparta just before the Trojan War. With a new English translation by Richard Duployen, this last production of the estimable Odyssey Opera wizards proved to be a true farce, with all of the lack of subtlety that implies. The story, with its large cast of characters, is a complicated one with a challenging book that almost defies description with a coherent synopsis.

Adam Fisher & Ginger Costa-Jackson in "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

So naturally one will try to synopsize it here. It features Paris (handsome tenor Adam Fisher), son of Priam, as he arrives with a message from Venus to the high priest Calchas (bass Ben Wager), commanding him to procure for Paris the love of Helene (beautifully-voiced mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson), promised him by Venus when he awarded the prize of beauty to her. Disguised as a shepherd, he wins three prizes at a contest of wit with the Greek kings under the direction of Agamemnon (baritone David McFerrin), then reveals his identity. Helene, convinced that circumstances have sealed her fate, crowns the Trojan prince as victor, to the disgust of Achille King of Phthia (tenor Christian Figueroa) and the two Ajaxes, the King of Salamis (tenor Steven Goldstein) and the King of Locris (tenor Gregory Zavracky). Invited to a banquet by Helene's husband, the king of Sparta Menalas (tenor Alan Schneider) bribed Calchas to prophesize that Menelas must at once proceed to Crete, to which he agrees.

Alan Schneider, Ginger Costa-Jackson & Adam Fisher in "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Witttman)

Paris, however, instead comes to Helene at night. After she stops his attempt at seducing her, he returns after she has fallen asleep. Helene believes that this is a dream, and so doesn't resist. Menelas, returning unexpectedly, finds the two in each other's arms. Helen tells him it's all his fault: A good husband knows when to arrive and when to keep away. Paris tries to keep him from being upset, but all the kings join in berating him, telling him to go back where he came from; he vows to return. Later, the kings and their followers have moved to Nauplia for the summer, with Helene still protesting her innocence. Venus has made everyone amorous, to the despair of the kings. A high priest of Venus arrives on a boat, explaining that he has to take Helene to Cythera. Menelas pleads with her to go with the priest, but she refuses, saying that it is he, and not she, who has offended the goddess. But realizing that the priest is Paris in disguise, she goes on board with him, and they sail away together.

Ben Wagner, David McFerrin, Felicia Gavilanes, Rachele Schmiege & Cast of "La Belle Helene"  
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Also in the cast are Loena (mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes), Oreste (mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos), Bacchis (soprano Mara Bonde), Parthoenis (soprano Rachele Schmiege), and Euthicles (Jesse Martin). Conducted by Gil Rose, with Stage Direction by Frank Kelley (in a fully staged production in English) and with an orchestra of thirty. The Chorus Master was Mariah Wilson, with Choreography by Marjorie Folkman, intentionally gaudy Costume Design by Brooke Stanton (notably the humorously striped women's swimwear) and Scenic Design by Janie Howland with Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (the last two happily familiar to local audiences from regional productions of plays and musicals). Clocking in at three hours, it cried out for surtitles, for, even though actually sung in English, a great deal of the spoken dialog and lyrics were unintelligible.

Christian Figueroa, Steven Goldstein, Gregory Zavrachy & Cast of "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The end of Odyssey Opera's current season was a reminder that next season will feature six operas based on the reigns of the Tudors, another embarrassment of riches from this beloved company.

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