Monday, 9 December 2019

Oh that all opera bouffe could be delivered with such panache: Offenbach's La Belle Hélène from New Sussex Opera

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Catherine Backhouse, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Catherine Backhouse, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera
Photo Robert Knights
Offenbach La Belle Hélène; Hannah Pedley, Anthony Flaum, Robert Gildon, Paul Featherstone, Charles Johnston, Jennifer Clark, Catherine Backhouse, dir: Jeff Clarke, cond: Toby Purser; New Sussex Opera
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 5 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The whole evening was a delight: Offenbach's operetta in a delightful new production

New Sussex Opera chose to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Offenbach’s birth with a production of La Belle Hélène and for the first time has collaborated with another company Opera della Luna, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. Having begun its run in Lewes, on Thursday 5 December it rocked up at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. Hannah Pedley was the Queen of Sparta, she of the fatal beauty, and Anthony Flaum was Paris come to claim his prize. Paul Featherstone, Charles Johnston and Robert Gildon were Menelaus, Agamemnon and Calchas. Jennifer Clark was Helen’s attendant Bacchis and Catherine Backhouse, the son of Agamemnon, Orestes. Toby Purser conducted this new version that was arranged, translated and directed by Opera della Luna’s Artistic Director Jeff Clarke.

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Hannah Pedley, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Hannah Pedley, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
“My dream was always to found a mutual insurance society for the combating of boredom” - so said Offenbach, according to the blurb.
If this was the touchstone used to assay the merits of this production, then it paid off in spades. Dispensing with any torpor inducing pretensions (no names no pack drill) we tumbled head first into a world of contemporary satire, raising a ginger finger at our complacency and the right old mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into.

The action set off apace with some jauntily crisp playing from the St Paul's Sinfonia in the pit. The chorus descended with idiosyncratic abandon, indeterminate gender and questionable sartorial taste, courtesy of Simply Spartan Tours, there to witness the site of all that Venereal intrigue, set back whenever it was.

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Robert Gildon, Paul Featherstone, Charles Johnston - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Robert Gildon, Paul Featherstone, Charles Johnston - New Sussex Opera
(Photo Robert Knights)
No urn was left unturned in this Homeric satire, all done in the best possible and vulgar taste. The dialogue sparkled in this hedonistic caper and if there were a few musical stumbles it scarcely mattered. Hannah Pedley was a gloriously languorous Auntie Nellie with a lush chest voice and if Anthony Flaum occasionally over sang for my taste, he cut quite the dash in a kilt. Robert Gildon, Paul Featherstone and Charles Johnston delivered camp infectious drollery that never flagged, whilst Catherine Backhouse was a gender-fluid Orestes. The whole evening was a delight.

Oh, that all opera bouffe could be delivered with such panache.

La Belle Hélène
A collaboration with
New Sussex Opera and Opera della Luna
Thursday 5 December 2019
The Bloomsbury Theatre
Helen : Hannah Pedley
Paris : Anthony Flaum
Menelaus : Paul Featherstone
Agamemnon : Charles Johnston
Calchas : Robert Gildon
Bacchis : Jennifer Clark
Orestes : Catherine Backhouse
Conductor : Toby Purser
Director : Jeff Clarke
St. Paul’s Sinfonia

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Anthony Flaum, Hannah Pedley - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Anthony Flaum, Hannah Pedley - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)

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