La Belle Hélène
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La Belle Hélène

Grand Théâtre de Genève

IT IS UNLIKELY that Auguste Escoffier, the preeminent chef, restaurateur and food critic of late-nineteenth-century France, would have been inspired to create his famous dessert, “Poire Belle Hélène,” after seeing the production of Offenbach's eponymous masterpiece at the Grand Théâtre de Genève on October 12th.  The Orchestre de Chambre de Genève was conducted jointly by Gérard Daguerre at the piano and Alan Woodbridge on the podium in a production by Robert Sandoz.

At a time when the smallest hint of inauthentic practice spills journalistic ink and re-orchestration is regarded with justifiable contempt, Geneva's take on Offenbach's La Belle Hélène was indefensible. Daguerre's arrangement of the score might have been acceptable at a fringe event in a provincial festival, where resources are limited, but in a major European house it was unacceptable. The composer's orchestration is one of the wonders of French music. Be it with limited forces, his “refinement of design equals that of Mozart or Rossini” as commented Offenbach expert and editor Jean-Christophe Kech. Daguerre, whose claim to fame is mainly through his association with popular variety artists of the twentieth century, interrupted the score with sugary takes on the composer's themes on the piano, extraneous percussion and a halfhearted sense of ensemble with Alan Woodbrige's admirably clear and precise direction of the band and chorus. Rossini called the composer “the little Mozart of the Champs-Elysées” and one can imagine the howls of outrage at a version of almost any other composer's opera with a swinging café-concert piano as part of the musical line up.

Sandoz’s production might have seemed more amusing if not coupled with this music heresy. The work was set in what appeared to be the modern container shipyard of Piraeus, an unattractive corner of the world, cheered up by Anne-Laure Futin's fantasy costumes; but balloons, feathers and festive fun aren’t enough to realize the composer's sharp political satire. Topical jokes got a few sniggers from the Geneva public, but the broad humor, which included a teasing version of rugby's haka war cry, lacked refinement and Gallic wit. This was a shame for Véronique Gens, who was making her debut in the role of Hélène. 

Gens is a tall, beautiful woman, who could have produced a noble yet spirited heroine. Her singing provided a welcome touch of vocal refinement, although this mezzo role, written for Offenbach’s muse Hortense Schneider, does not allow the soprano to display her silvery upper register to best advantage. Dramatically Gens was limited to a zany display of fidgety gestures and overacted comic artifice. Under the vaudeville business there must be a sensitive beating heart, which was precluded by this production. 

Opposite this Hélène, the “shepherd” of tenor Florian Cafiero as Pâris had a charming timbre, but lacked the upper register virtuosity the role demands. Best of the hard-working supporting cast were the strong mezzo Maria Fiselier as a bearded lady Oreste (Conchita Wurst has a lot to answer for operatically!) and the Ménélas of veteran tenor Raúl Giménez, whose technique and firm projection provided a beacon of light in this depressing evening for Offenbach fans.  —Stephen J. Mudge 


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