Opera: La Belle Helene – Jacques Offenbach

“La Belle Helena” or “The Fair Helen” is an opera bouffe in three acts, the music by Jacques Offenbach and the words by Henry de Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. It was first presented at the Théâtre des Variétés, Paris, Dec. 17, 1864.

CHARACTERS

Paris, son of King Priam. Menelaus, King of Sparta. Agamemnon, King of Greece. Calchas, Grand Augur of Jupiter. Achilles, King of Phiotis. Ajax the First, King of Salamine. Ajax the Second, King of Locria. Orestes, son of Agamemnon. Helen, Queen of Sparta. Bacchis, an attendant of Helen. Parthenis, Leoena, women of Corinth. Philocomes, a servant of Calchas. Euthecles, a blacksmith. Guards, slaves, the populace.

The affair is based upon the Homeric legend of Helen of Troy and refers to the decision of Paris and to other classical incidents, the scene being laid in Sparta and on the seashore. The curtain rises on the public square, back of the Temple of Jupiter, to which deity the people are paying homage. Stray references to cheese, butchers’ bills and the Cytheran Tribune may be heard. Just as Philocomes arrives with the thunder, which, at Calchas’ bidding, he hangs upon a nail, Helen appears with a chorus and she and Calchas try to devise a way of escaping the decree of the oracle, which has it that she must leave her husband Menelaus and fly to Troy with Paris ” a nice young man,” whom Venus declares to have wonderful taste and to whom she has promised the fairest woman under the heavens. Paris arrives, disguised as a shepherd, and Helen is at once struck with his beauty, while he is equally pleased with the lady Venus has provided for’ him. He says : “A charming face ! Let us see the profile. Splendid, too ! The three-quarters now turn. How naïf! She has every quality. Now turn three-quarters this side. Raise your head a little, don’t open your mouth. Splendid!” They are devoted lovers in no time.

There follows a grand tournament to which everyone comes. All the dignitaries, the Ajaxes, Achilles, Menelaus and all the kings guess at charades. Paris wins the first prize. This draws attention to him and in his pride he declares his identity. ” Heavens,” cries Helen, in agitation, ” the apple man ! ” The accommodating oracle puts in an order for Menelaus to sail without delay for Crete and Paris is left in possession of the field. He secures an interview with Helen and tries to induce her to accompany him. He even craftily suggests some doubt that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.

“And who else could it be? ” inquires the indignant Helen, ” Not Parthenia who paints, nor stiff Penelope, nor my sister Clytemnestra with her nose ! ”

Paris departs unsuccessful. The kings engage in a gambling match and later, the Queen retires to dream of Paris, who, meanwhile, enters her apartment as a slave. Their interview is interrupted by the return of Menelaus with his valise and umbrella. Helen scolds him for not announcing his coming. Later, the couple have a quarrel about the incident and the King calls Helen false, demanding that the grand augur of Venus be sent to him. Calchas informs him that a new augur has been appointed and is on his way. This, as usual, turns out to be Paris in disguise. He demands that Helen come with him and sacrifice one hundred white heifers to Venus, who is vexed about many things. Reluctantly, she obeys the voice of destiny and gets on board the galley, leaving her spouse in rage.

“La Belle Hélène ” is an excellent example of its class, the opera bouffe. It is purposely and, ridiculously inconsistent; its anachronisms are appalling; the gods and heroes of mythical Greece and the Age of Fable wear modern clothes and give expression to modern sentiments. It shows a peculiar sense of humor and is an admirable piece of buffoonery, if one can blink at the fact that the dialogue occasionally borders on the vulgar.

Among the tuneful numbers, and they are truly tuneful, are Helen’s song, “Amours Divins ” (” The loves divine ; ‘ ) the judgment of Paris, “Au Mont Ida ” (” On Mount Ida;”) Helen’s “Le roi plaintif ” (” The plaintiff king “) and “On me nomme Hélène la blonde” (” I am called Helen the fair; “) the March of the Goose; the duet between Helen and Paris, ” Oui! C’est un rêve ” (” Yes, ’tis a dream; “) Helen’s couplets, ” Un Mar Sage ” (” A husband wise”); Orestes’ “Vénus au Fond ! ” Paris’ song, ” Sachez le bien” (” Know but the good “) and the patriotic trio in the last act, ” Lorsque la Grece est un camp de carnage” (” When all of Greece is a field of carnage”) sung by Agamemmon, Calchas and Menelaus, which is a parody of the famous trio in ” William Tell.”