La belle Hélène in Lausanne

The composer Jacques Offenbach was born in 1819, so 2019 was his bicentenary. This cartoon by the front entrance of the Lausanne opera house shows him saying “200 years, already…?” and thinking “At the Opera of Lausanne.”

For the bicentenary, the Lausanne Opera presented two of Offenbach’s operas, Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann in French) and La belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen). I missed the Hoffmann, but managed to be in Lausanne for the next-to-last performance of La belle Hélène.

Seating in the Lausanne opera house

This was the second staging of La belle Hélène that I have seen. The first was at the Châtelet in Paris in 2015, with the mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez in the title role. I have since seen Gaëlle Arquez fairly often at the Frankfurt Opera, as well as in Paris and Vienna, and I’m still a big fan of hers even though I never did succeed in persuading her to come as the featured guest to one of my opera appreciation courses.

Balconies in the Lausanne opera house

Surprisingly, the real star of the Lausanne production in 2019 was not Hélène herself (though Julie Robard-Gendre was fine in the title role) but rather the stage director Michel Fau, who also played and sang the role of Ménélas, the King of Sparta and Hélène’s cuckolded husband. Since he was playing the role himself, he had no qualms about making Ménélas even sillier than in the original, and showing off his flabby physique in contrast with some of the quite muscular men in the cast. He was even the only performer to be completely naked on stage, though it was only for a moment (at the end of act 2) and only from the rear.

There was a supernumerary playing the role of the goddess Vénus. She was supposed to look nude (except for her long blond hair covering her breasts, as it says somewhere in the text), but she was in fact wearing a flesh-colored body-stocking the whole time. She did not look like a goddess, particularly, more like a flirty teenager, but perhaps that was intentional.

La belle Hélène poster (complet)

The word complet (= full) was added to this poster at the front entrance of the Opéra de Lausanne because the entire run of La belle Hélène was sold out before it even started. (Fortunately I had booked well in advance on their website.) But since it was a co-production it will presumably be shown at some point at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, Belgium, and at the Opéra Comique in Paris.

The reason there is a swan in the poster is that the king of the Greek gods, Zeus, was said to have disguised himself as a swan so he could seduce (or rape) Lena, Hélène’s mother. Zeus then had to take refuge in Lena’s arms to protect himself from an attacking eagle, who was actually the goddess Vénus, at least that’s what Hélène claims in the first act of Offenbach’s opéra-bouffe.

Audience in the Lausanne opera house

Two of the best-known songs in La belle Hélène are the ones in which she directly addresses Vénus, the goddess of love. In the first act, Hélène and the chorus complain to Vénus about the lack of love in the world (Il nous faut de l’amour) and in the second act she asks Vénus why she seems to take such pleasure in preventing well-meaning women like herself from maintaining their virtue (Dis-moi Vénus, quel plaisir trouves-tu à faire ainsi cascader la vertu?)

Applause after La belle Hélène in Lausanne

Some of the funny bits in La belle Hélène are deliberate anachronisms, like a game of charades in which Paris (the man, not the city) correctly works out the answer, which is the word locomotive. Achilles tries to take credit for the answer, but Agamemnon declares Paris to be the winner and praises him for finding the word locomotive four thousand years before the invention of the railway.

Besides Offenbach’s music and the clever text by his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, I like the symmetry of the name Hélène in French, with the acute and grave accent marks both pointing to the letter l in the center.

Watch the teaser for La belle Hélène at the Lausanne opera.

My photos in this post are from 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.

See more posts on the composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).

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