LA BELLE HÉLÈNE
Opéra-bouffe in 3 acts. Book by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy. Music by Jacques Offenbach.
Théâtres des Variétés, Paris 17 December, 1864.
Adelphi Theatre, London (as Helen or Taken From the Greek 30 June 1866
Opera Society Adaptation by Phil Park and Ronald Hanmer.
1) book and lyrics by Geoffrey Dunn
2) book by Edmund Tracey, lyrics by Geoffrey Dunn
The second - and equally famous - of Offenbach's highly diverting satires on a well-known legend. The action takes place (without any regard for credibility) in unspecified ancient times in a unlikely ancient Greece, and concerns the abduction of the fair Helen by the Prince of Troy - aided and abetted by a wily oracle-worker, who outwits Helen's much deceived husband and an assortment of royal Grecian heroes. The score includes some of Offenbach's best-loved melodies.
by Agathe Mélinand
Act I Sparta.
The feast of Adonis is being prepared. The people are laying offerings
on the altar, but Calchas, the Grand Augur, is disappointed at this
cartload of flowers. He would like oxen and sheep for Jupiter, who
is in one of his moods! Meanwhile Venus – well, since that
Mount Ida affair!... 'Venus's augur will be doing big business'.
Enter Helen of Sparta, with women mourning Adonis. On this day, the
anniversary of the beautiful young man's death, they implore Venus:
'We must have love. Love is dying! Love is dead.'
Alone with Calchas, Helen confides in him: she is obsessed with the Mount Ida story, and the shepherd, Paris. Didn't Venus promise him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world? And the most beautiful woman in the world... could that be any other than she? Ah, Fate! That Fate which burdens her and prevents her from having a peaceful bourgeois life with Menelaus! Calchas gets rid of Helen just as her 'darling nephew' Orestes enters. Accompanied by two girls who are no better than they should be, he tells us of his steamy time yesterday evening. Calchas sends him packing – he has 'an urgent sacrifice...' and can't risk the scandal if the jolly trio should be heard inside the temple. What would people say?
Alone at last, Calchas is getting ready for the sacrifice when in comes a shepherd who speaks of
Venus, and a letter... and lo! 'Up there, in the blue sky... that little spot which is getting bigger and bigger' is a carrier-pigeon laden with a letter. Venus writes to Calchas, commanding that Paris must meet Helen. The amazed augur recognises King Priam's son, who has seen the goddess. The High Priest cannot resist, he asks for 'a bit of an idea'. Paris complies: 'Listen to the story!'
Helen now appears and is obviously smitten at first glance with this handsome shepherd. The meeting is cut short, for the festival is beginning. Enter the Kings of Greece, 'organisers of, and participants in, a 'day of intelligence'. In search of a strong intellect among those who are just strong, we meet the two Ajaxes, the ebullient Achilles, Menelaus and the bearded King Agamemnon. A charade and a rhyming game are both won by the shepherd, the outright winner of the contest. He reveals who and what he is: 'the chap with the apple', who is crowned by a weak-kneed Helen, whilst Menelaus invites him to dinner. At seven, Helen specifies: 'We eat at seven...' Paris wants to get her on her own. Calchas fixes it. A fake thunderclap and an improvised prophecy send King Menelaus off 'to spend a month in the mountains of Crete'. The entire court joins in the divine decree: 'Go on, may you arrive, Menelaus, at that distant land where, alas! the voice of destiny leads you!'
Act II Helen's quarters.
Her attendants show her some marvellous gowns for the grand soirée
kings. Marvellous, but revealing. Helen declines them; she would like something to 'hide my grace and beauty' so as to make it easier to resist falling in love with Paris. Better still, when he is announced, she tells her attendant Bacchis to ask him to wait, and retires for a moment to contemplate the portrait of her parents. After an invocation to Venus, who delights in 'bringing about the downfall of virtue', Helen feels better and has Paris shown in. When she resists him, despite his attempts at the two usual ways of seducing a woman, he leaves her, promising her there's a Third Way: 'by cunning'. The Kings enter, engrossed in their favourite pastime, the Great Goose Game, in the course of which Calchas is caught with his hand in the till: 'The Grand Augur is cheating'.
The desperate Helen has had the number of slaves guarding her chamber doubled. She asks Calchas for a private audience. She will not go to the dinner: she fears her own weakness and is afraid of seeing Paris again. Only solitude and sleep will be her allies. She asks Calchas for a dream, 'a sweet dream in which I see him, this Paris I'm running away from, this Paris I adore'. The queen falls asleep, a slave enters the chamber; it is Paris in disguise. Since it's 'Fate', Calchas leaves him alone, taking Bacchis to dinner.
Enchanted by Helen, Paris quivers with passion, and when the beauty awakens and sees him she thinks she is still dreaming – the dream which Calchas promised her... The love duet which followsis not taboo, because 'it's only a dream'! Alas, Menelaus, returning inopportunely from Crete, interrupts the sweet dream of love and, mad with rage, has the other kings brought in. In vain do they tell him a husband just doesn't come back home without warning; he won't listen. To calm him down, Agamemnon sends 'the vile seducer' back to Troy. But Paris threatens to come back, since 'Every shepherd must have his day'.
Act III A beach at Nauplia.
Venus has had her revenge, putting the people of Greece in the grip
of an erotic mania. 'Husbands are leaving their wives, wives are
leaving their husbands' and those who do not agree can only go off
to Leucadia and throw themselves over a cliff. Agamemnon and Calchas,
embarrassed and freezing in their bathing costumes, are devastated.
Enter Helen. She had come to this beach 'out of season' to look for
peace and has grown heartily sick of the question Menelaus continually
asks: why did she say 'it was only a dream'? Helen issues a threat
of something even worse: 'I'll make you cry over the real thing.'
Agamemnon and Calchas, seeing that Menelaus 'gives not a fig for
his country's woes', say he should forget about being a husband and
attend to being a king. The orgy must be stopped, Menelaus must 'sacrifice
himself and give up his wife, humbly accepting the decree of the
gods. Menelaus refuses; he has a better idea. Despite Calchas's tantrums,
he announces the arrival of a parallel
augur, the Grand Augur of Venus, who is from Cythera. The disguised Paris (for it is he!) now puts in to shore unrecognised, aboard a flower-decked galley. He first demands some jollity in their reception, then the sacrifice of a hundred white heifers, and finally the departure of Helen on a little voyage 'to a very pretty little island... Cythera!'. Menelaus agrees: it's not much to ask. Helen recognises Paris, she 'resists', and only finally goes on board the galley which 'is leaving for Cythera' when everyone says she must.
Once away from the shore, the Grand Augur reveals his identity. It is Paris; he is carrying Helen off. Now she is his.
- PROLOGUE (Venus, Juno, Minerva, Paris and Mercury)
- OPENING ACT I (Leona, Cressida, Calchus, Philocomus and Ensemble)
- "OH! ADONIS!" (Helen and her Attendants)
- "THE RISING GENERATION" (Leona, Cressida and Orestes)
4a ENTRANCE OF PARIS
- "THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS" (Paris)
5a HELEN'S MEETING WITH PARIS
- "BEHOLD THE MIGHTY KINGS OF GREECE!" (Chorus)
- "To BE A GRECIAN KING" (Orestes, Calchus, Ajax, Menelaus, Achilles, Agamemnon and Chorus)
- FINALE ACT I (Ensemble)
- OPENING ACT II (Orestes, Nesta and Helen's Attendants)
- "THE MOMENT NOW IS DRAWING NEAR" (Helen)
- "FAIR AND SQUARE" (Helen, Nesta, Orestes, Achilles, Ajax, Calchus and Agamemnon)
- "O DREAM OF LOVE" (Helen and Paris)
- FINALE ACT II (Ensemble)
- OPENING ACT III (Helen, Menelaus and Ensemble)
- REPRISE; "O DREAM OF LOVE" (Helen and Paris)
- "TWO MIGHTY MEN-AT-ARMS" (Achilles and Ajax)
19a …ENTRANCE OF THE GOLDEN GALLEY
- FINALE ACT III (Ensemble)
- FIRST CURTAIN CALL. "OH! ADONIS!" (Ensemble)
- SECOND CURTAIN CALL. "WHEN DREAMS OF LOVE" (Ensemble)
- No. 5 "THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS" (Paris)
- No. 13 "O DREAM OF LOVE" (Helen and Paris)
- No. 17a PATRIOTIC TRIO "SOMETHING MUST BE DONE" (Agamemnon, Calchus and Menelaus)
7 female, 9 male
HELEN … Queen of Sparta
NESTA … her attendant
LEONA & CRESSIDA … young ladies of Sparta
PARIS … Prince of Troy
MENELAUS … King of Sparta
CALCHAS … Chief Augur
PHILOCOMUS … his attendant
AGAMEMNON … King of Mycenae
AJAX … King of Salamis
ACHILLES … King of the Myrmidons
ORESTES … son of Agamemnon
JUNO, MINERVA, VENUS … three beautiful goddesses
MERCURY … Messenger of the gods
- HELEN … famed for her beauty, and her flirtations … Soprano.
- LEONA & CRESSIDA … two attractive and vivacious young "moderns" of Sparta. Sopranos.
- NESTA … Helen's personal maid and confidante. … Contralto.
- VENUS (Soprano), JUNO (Soprano), MINERVA (Mezzo-Soprano) … Three goddesses, jealous of each other's beauty.
- ORESTES … Agamemnon's playboy son, nephew to Menelaus. … Light Tenor.
- PARIS … Prince of Troy, son of King Priam. Young, personable, debonair. … High baritone.
- CALCHAS … Chief Augur of the Temple, and a wily worker of the Oracle. … Pseudo-dignified comedy baritone.
- MENELAUS … Helen's middle-aged, much-deceived, and much-derided husband. … Character comedian; baritone.
- ACHILLES & AJAX (Baritones) … two Greek Heroes, more burly than brainy, and jealous of their reputations.
- AGAMEMNON … Brother to Menelaus; eldest of the three kings visiting Sparta—and rather smugly aware of his reputation for being the wisest. … Bass-baritone.
- MERCURY … Messenger of the Gods. Baritone.
- PHILOCOMUS … Calchas's assistant, aider-and-abettor.
- THE ORCHESTRA
Scenes and Settings:
PROLOGUE: Mount Ida.
ACT I—Sparta: before the Temple of Jupiter.
ACT II—Sparta: the Queen's apartment in the Palace.
ACT III —Nauplia : the seashore.
The action of the operetta takes place, without any regard for credibility, in unspecified ANCIENT TIMES, in an unlikely ANCIENT GREECE.
flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, percussion, harp, strings. Professional Versions: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 3 percussion, strings
IN the new version for amateur companies of "La Belle Hélène", the orchestration has been carefully arranged to meet the requirements of modest or large orchestras.
The minimum combination for an effective performance is: Flute; 1st B flat Clarinet; 1st and 2nd Trumpets; 1st Trombone; Percussion and Strings. Thereafter, instruments should be added in the following order: 2nd B flat Clarinet; Oboe; 2nd Trombone; Bassoon; 1st and 2nd Horns and lastly, Harp.
The work is liberally cued. In the absence of the Oboe, the 1st Trumpet should play these cues muted. Oboe cues are doubled in Flute and Clarinet parts where practicable, and the Horn and Bassoon cues appear in Cello, Trombone and Trumpet parts. It is emphasised that a complete string section should be used (1st and 2nd Violins, Viola, Cello and Bass), but Clarinet parts contain many essential cues to be played in absence of a Viola. The string parts are bowed and fingered where necessary, and the 1st Violin has all important melody cues throughout. The vocal score carries instrumentation marks for the musical director's assistance.
La Belle Hélène with Felicity Lott and the Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble - Virgin Classics 7243 5 45477 2 0