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Offenbach La Belle Hélène ENO 3 April 2006

Helen Felicity Lott
Paris Toby Spence
Menelaus Bonaventura Bottone
Calchas Steven Page
Orestes Leah-Marian Jones
Achilles Leigh Melrose
Agamemnon David Kempster
Ajax I John Graham-Hall Ajax II Roland Wood
Bacchis Anne Marie Gibbons
Parthoenis Amy Freston
Leoena Claire Wild

Conductor Emmanuel Joel
Director Laurent Pelly
English Translation Kit Hesketh-Harvey

We felt very out of place at this premiere, failing to find it funny and enjoying the singing only intermittently. Perhaps Dame Lott brought her famed portrayal of Helen back to London too late; from our seats she failed to dominate her scenes vocally (" her voice sounds overwhelmed in the Coliseum's huge space - - " Bloomberg.com) and she was upstaged by the handsome young Toby Spence's shepherd and his amiable sheep.

Steven Page's every word was clear; others weren't always - sometimes that was for the better, given the excruciating translation. The ENO production has predictably divided the critics; one, who was seething during the interval, blessed his good fortune that he did not have to review it.

Rather than going on unproductively about a production with which we were completely out of sympathy, I advise sampling the reviews collected with a full set of photo images at TheOperaCritic, and deciding whether ENO's English Helen is for you.

Our feelings are best represented by the Evening Standard (below) and in The Guardian: - - when the most stylish thing on stage is a bunch of dancers in woolly sheep costumes, you have to wonder whether this production isn't lacking a certain je ne sais quoi - -.

Nor is it easier with the two DVDs. We enjoy Harnoncourt's from Zurich, but you will find opposing opinions of it on Amazon. And the Paris filming of this Pelly production gets inordinate praise from several writers which we find hard to credit; we'll have to see it. Again and again we have found that operas go better on DVD than when seen live, which some think sacrilegious (e.g. recently the Christie/Bondy Hercules).



La Belle Helene English National Opera
*** Fiona Maddocks Evening Standard 4 April 2006

THE WORLD divides into those who find something innately funny about a man with a handkerchief on his head or a chorus of shimmying sheep, and those who do not.

As a sad member of the latter category awaiting redemption, I found much of ENO's new staging of La Belle Helene heavy-going - - others were finding it all a "romp" as one member of the audience - in fact the recently departed chairman of ENO, Martin Smith - was overheard describing it at the interval.

Laurent Petiy's production, new in 2000, has already had success in Europe, where Felicity Lott melted hard Gallic hearts with her performance of the title role as Offenbach's Helen of Troy. Now this popular and classy performer has recreated the flighty Queen of Sparta as an English grande dame in brilliant, multi­layered parodic style, with a touch of Maureen Lipman and a smattering of Joyce Grenfell.

Looking spectacular in a rose satin nightgown, Lott sang elegantly and revelled in her Troy-boy Paris : to borrow a joke from Kit Hesketh-Harvey's punning English translation, which seethes with zany allusion and groan-inducing one-liners. Homer-phobia, lost marbles ("I blame Lord Elgin") Ant and Dec and that other Troy boy, Orlando Bloom, all make appearances though without the wonder of surtitles we might never have realised. Several mentions of Kismet reminded us that Hesketh-Harvey is writing a new version of that musical for ENO next season.

Bonaventura Bottone's Menelaus and Steven Page's Calchas enteredy into the less-than-subtle mood of Laurent Pelly's skimpily-clad seaside production (pictured). A ballet of choreographed swimmers was sharp and funny; as were the swaying Korybantes, making a brief appearance early on. .

The orchestra, under Emmanuel Joel, played with accuracy but as yet less sparkle than this gorgeously melodic score deserves. Together with Lott, the other bright star of the evening was Toby Spence's cleanly sung, fresh faced and cherubic Paris . You can hardly blame the queen for misbehaving.

Edward Seckerson in The Independent:

Trouble in the Greek camp: 07 April 2006
What's this, a scene from Desperate Housewives? A suburban bedroom: the door to the en suite bathroom is ajar, the light on, a familiar overture playing on the radio, and the sound of gargling. Ablutions complete, a female form floats into view and with barely a cursory glance at the reclining, snoring figure in her marital bed, joins him. But this is no ordinary housewife. Desperate or not, this is La Belle Hélène and the face that launched a thousand ships has had better nights.

- - Part of the problem is the sheer size of the London Coliseum. A show conceived for the more intimate reaches of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris no longer finds the required immediacy. Everyone's so busy trying to reach the back row of the upper balcony that it's soon a case of death-by-declamation. Jokes don't so much land as levitate. It all seems like very hard work indeed. And still I wonder how audible, for instance, the star of the show - the elegant but rather soft-grained Felicity Lott - proves to be from the dress circle or above?

- - The cast are hard-working - too hard-working for the requisite lightness of touch to work its magic. The kings duly dominate, with David Kempster and Leigh Melrose giving stand-out performances as Agamemnon and Achilles, and Steven Page a sonorous Calchas, grand augur to Zeus. Toby Spence as Paris works the dialogue almost as strenuously as his pecs but sings with a wonderful sense of the French style. So does Lott, a handsome presence and a natural comic despite having to push beyond the comfort zone of that lovely sound. The conductor Emmanuel Joel seemed to be fighting the acoustic, too, anxious to keep the fizz without shaking the bottle but not always well co-ordinated with his gyrating chorus on stage.
Slightly heavy weather, then, but at least we know where the show's coming from. "Haven't you read your Iliad?" says Calchas to Paris. "No, I'm quite homophobic, actually." Oh, please.



© Peter Grahame Woolf