La belle Hélène (French pronunciation: [la bɛl elɛn], The Beautiful Helen), opéra bouffe in three acts, is an operetta by Jacques Offenbach to an original French libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The operetta parodies the story of Helen's elopement with Paris, which set off the Trojan War.
It was first performed at Paris's Théâtre des Variétés on December 17, 1864, starring Hortense Schneider and José Dupuis. While some experts (cf Grove) are of the opinion that the creation of La belle Hélène was a "largely untroubled" affair, others (cf Jacob) paint a different picture: Although Offenbach had managed at great cost to persuade Hortense Schneider, known by then as "La Snédèr", to accept the role of Helen, the premiere remained in doubt to the very last minute. During rehearsals, La Snédèr constantly complained that the extravagant Léa Silly (as Orestes in a man's role) was trying to upstage her: La Silly extemporized (a privilege reserved for the prima donna), La Silly imitated her, La Silly danced a cancan in her back while she was singing an important aria, etc etc. La Snédèr not only walked off the set repeatedly, but kept threatening to leave the world, or at least Paris, altogether. It took all of Offenbach's skills at creating harmony to see the production through.
La belle Hélène was an instant success with both the public and the critics and enjoyed, some say, an unprecedented initial run of 700 performances. Premieres in Vienna (1865), Berlin (1865), London (1866), and Chicago (1867) followed shortly. It also had a run in New York City at the Grand Opera House beginning on April 13, 1871.
December 17, 1864,
(Conductor: - )
|Agamemnon, King of Kings
|Ménélas, King of Sparta
|Pâris, son of King Priam of Troy
|Calchas, high priest of Jupiter
|Achille, King of Phthiotis
|Oreste, son of Agamemnon
||mezzo-soprano or tenor
|Ajax I, King of Salamis
|Second Ajax, King of the Locrians
|Philocome, Calchas' attendant
|Euthyclès, a blacksmith
|Hélène, Queen of Sparta
|Parthénis, a courtesan
|Lœna, a courtesan
|Bacchis, Helen's attendant
||Mlle. C. Renault
|Princes, guards, people, slaves etc.
- Place: Sparta and the shores of the sea
- Time: Before the Trojan War.
Paris, son of Priam, arrives with a missive from the goddess Venus to the high priest Calchas, commanding him to procure for Paris the love of Helen, promised him by Venus when he awarded the prize of beauty to her and refused it to Juno and Minerva.
Paris disguises himself as a shepherd and wins three prizes at a contest of outrageously silly wordgames with the Greek kings under the direction of the 'barbu, bu, bu' (bearded and drunk) Agamemnon as schoolmaster, whereupon he reveals his identity. All the world knows that he has awarded the apple to Venus, and Helen realizes that it is 'la fatalité' (fatality) that has sent her 'l'homme à la pomme' (the man with the apple). The Trojan prince is crowned victor by Helen, to the disgust of the lout Achilles and the two bumbling Ajaxes. Paris is invited to a banquet by Menelaus, 'l'époux de la reine, poux de la reine, poux de la reine' (Helen's spouse and louse). Paris has bribed Calchas to have Philocomus strike the thunder gong and to prophesy that Menelaus must at once proceed to Crete, at which point the chorus breaks into a joyful song, repeating over and over again 'Va, suis, Ménélas / La voix du destin / Qui te mène, hélas! / Au pays crétain!' ('Go, go, go to Crete!'), which ends the act.
After parodies on the life of the Greek court, in which the honest Calchas appears as a gambling cheat, Paris comes to Helen at night. Although she knows her fate, she seemingly resists him, and he uses strategy. He departs, but returns when she has fallen asleep. He tells Helen that what will now occur is only a dream, and she is content to risk all with this understanding at this moment. Menelaus unexpectedly returns and finds the two in each other's arms. Helen, exclaiming 'la fatalité, la fatalité', tells him that it is all his fault: A good husband knows when to come and when to stay away. Paris tries to dissuade him from kicking up a row, but to no avail. When all the kings join the party, berating him and telling him to go back where he came from, Paris departs, vowing to return and finish the job.
The kings and their entourage have moved to Nauplia for the summer season. A high priest of Venus arrives on a boat, explaining that he has to take Helen to Cythera where she is to sacrifice 100 heifers for her offenses. Menelaus pleads with her to go with the priest, but she refuses, saying that it is he, and not she, who has offended the goddess. But when she realizes that the priest is Paris in disguise, she goes on board with him, and they sail away together. The rest is "History".
- 'Amours divins' (Helen)
- 'Au mont Ida' (Paris)
- Felicity Lott, Yann Beuron, Michel Sénéchal, Laurent Naouri, François Le Roux, Marie-Ange Todorovitch. Direction musicale, Marc Minkowski (version given at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2000).
- Jessye Norman, John Aler, Charles Burles, Gabriel Bacquier, Jean-Philippe Lafont. Direction musicale, Michel Plasson.
- Jane Rhodes, Rémy Corazza, Jacques Martin, Jules Bastin, Michel Trempont, with the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg under Alain Lombard, and the chorus of the Opéra national du Rhin under Gunter Wagner (1978).
- Delamarche, Claire ed., L'Opéra pour les Nuls, Paris:Éditions Générales First, 2006
- Holden, Amanda ed., The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, London: Penguin Books, 2005
- Jacob, Walter ed., La opera, Claridad, Buenos Aires 1944
- Jambou, Louis ed., Dictionnaire chronologique de l'Opéra de 1597 à nos jours, 1994, Le Livre de Poche 7861
- Melnitz, Leo ed., The Opera Goer's Complete Guide, 1921
- Sadie, Stanley ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, London 1992