Having had a lot of fun with the Lyon recording of Orphée aux Enfers I decided to try and track down some more Offenbach operetta and managed to find a Zurich recording of La Belle Helène conducted, perhaps surprisingly, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
It’s not perhaps as wildly funny as the Orphée nor perhaps does it have as many memorable tunes but it’s good fun in an undemanding (at least for the audience) sort of way. The Zurich production, by Helmut Lohner, is painted in pretty broad brush strokes. The costumes a re very colourful, a bit silly and most have writing on them, much of it, oddly, in English. The thunder machine is positively Heath Robinsonish. There’s lots of stage action and fairly silly dancing around. It’s all very fast paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the sleeve notes leading one to expect more in the way of social satire. Harnoncourt is obviously having a whale of a time and occasionally gets caught up in the stage action rather as he does in the Salzburg King Arthur.
The singing and acting is terrific. Vesselina Kasarova is Helène and she manages the required vocal pyrotechnics with ease, indeed with control and some finesse. She also acts well and despite perhaps not being “the most beautiful woman in the world” she’s close enough for the idea to work. She’s very ably supported by Deon van der Walt as Paris and Carlos Chausson as a rather campy Calchas. There’s an engaging performance too by Liliana Nichiteanu as the philandering Orestes. It’s a big cast and everybody makes their contribution. Full listing follows…
I can’t fault Harnoncourt’s conducting or the support he gets from the Zurich Opera House Orchestra and Chorus. He is really into the piece and gets very stylish and lively playing from his band. The DVD sleeve claims that the orchestra is “configured to replicate that which would have been available to Offenbach” but there’s no explanation of what that means as the DVD package is the usual Kultur label minimalist effort. There did appear to be some odd looking instruments in the brass section but otherwise nothing was obvious to me.
Video direction is by Hartmut Schottler. It’s entirely typical 1990s TV standard direction with a few “artsy” superpositions thrown in. The picture is better than average 16:9 so there was scope to open up a bit more. The sound is very decent Dolby 2.0 and there are English subtitles. It’s Kultur so no bonuses and minimal documentation.