Allergic to operetta? Make an exception for Offenbach.
Andrew McGregor 2002
Allergic to operetta? Make an exception for Offenbach. This new recording of one of his most elegantly crafted confections should sneak its way under just about anybody's guard, such is its charm, and such is the strength and commitment of the cast. La Belle Hélène is the story of Paris and Helen, and her abduction by the Trojan prince disguised as a shepherd; it caused a bit of a scandal in Paris in the 1860's, with its 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' innuendo and suggestive lyrics - the height of permissiveness cloaked as a parody of antiquity.
It's remained a favourite comic opera ever since, and while you might be surprised to see authenticists Les Musiciens du Louvre and Marc Minkowski underpinning it all, you soon realise they're a brilliant choice: the scale is absolutely right, nothing is overblown, and everything trips along at a very crisp pace. The wit sparkles, the one-liners are beautifully timed and delivered, and there's none of the 'big opera star does laboured comic turn' heaviness you sometimes hear in this kind of production.
It feels live, you almost expect applause, and it's a surprise when you don't get it...but then this recording was made alongside a production run at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris which had the city's music-lovers giggling in the aisles. Felicity Lott told me she's rarely had more fun in a production, and she's a wonderful piece of casting as Helen - flirting with Yann Beuron's Paris like a teenager. No worries about her French either: if it's good enough for a native audience and an otherwise native cast, there shouldn't be many complaints. Beuron is in wonderful form, floating some delicious pianissimo lines at the top of his tenor, and he also gets an extra lullaby you won't find anywhere else - there've been a few restorations for this recording.
Operetta, comic opera - call it whatever you want. But if you care about Offenbach, if you like your soufflés light and not leathery, this will give hours of pleasure.