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La Belle Hélène

Komische Oper Berlin

In Review Belle Helene hdl 1115
Silly yet seductive: Chevalier as Hélène in Berlin
© Iko Freese/ 2015

The Komische Oper’s 2014­–15 season opened on a gloriously giddy note with a dynamic new production of Offenbach’s irreverent operetta La Belle Hélène (seen Oct. 11). The staging, by company intendant Barrie Kosky, marked the 150th anniversary of the work’s premiere at the Théâtre des Variétés. 

Only an Offenbach purist (if there even is such a thing) could take issue with Kosky’s decision to maintain a constant intrusion of outside musical material, including Wagner, Gounod, Verdi and — why not? — “Hava Nagila.” For the rest of us, Kosky’s overloading of musical and cultural references just deepened the parody while honoring and updating the spirit (if not the letter) of Offenbach’s own mischievous project of desacralization. The musical hodgepodge was complemented visually by such incongruous elements as neon Baroque interiors, roller-skating Scottish soldiers (complete with flaming red hair and kilts) and a male dance troupe that wore derrière-exposing Lederhosen (one of costume designer Buki Shiff’s many memorable creations). 

The obvious danger was that the entire conceit might collapse under the weight of its own ridiculousness. It was, however, a risk that Kosky, his team and the entire company surmounted brilliantly. The success of the enterprise depended on an absolute commitment to the absurdity. This brazen assurance extended from the principal cast, drawn from the house’s dynamic ensemble, to the shimmering and unified chorus to the alert and shape-shifting orchestra, led by the Komische’s GMD, Henrik Nánási, who responded nimbly to the cast’s frequent cues of “Hit it, Henrik.” Otto Pichler, whose choreography for West Side Story last season left me cold, here provided inspired and inventive dancing that seemed to last the show’s entire duration. 

Top vocal and dramatic honors (indeed, on this evening they often seemed hard to separate) went to a talented trio of recent ensemble hires, who sang Simon Werle’s agile and witty German-language translation, as per the house’s long-standing tradition. In the title role, American soprano Nicole Chevalier struck a balance between the seductive and the silly, tossing off her high notes and runs with devil-may-care assurance and flair. Tansel Akzeybek’s Paris wore a cowboy hat and played harmonica. This bright-voiced Turkish­–German tenor, previously seen here as Telemaco in Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and Tony in West Side Story,sang with a winning combination of ardor and impishness. And the German bass Stefan Sevenich, bouncing around in a fat suit as the high priest Calchas, stole nearly every scene with his rapid-fire delivery and perfect comic timing. Among the other cast members, special mention must go to KOB veteran and Kammersänger Peter Renz, who, as the cuckolded Menelaus, took center stage with an impassioned rendition of “Ne me quitte pas.” 

Kosky’s productions have been high points of the season since he arrived at the Komische three years ago, with special mention going to The Monteverdi Trilogy, DieZauberflöte and Paul Abraham’s Ball im Savoy. With Hélène, he has managed to raise the bar for himself and for the company. In an uncharacteristically lackluster Berlin opera landscape, Kosky has made the Komische the most exciting place for opera in the city. spacer 


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