LA BELLE HÉLÈNE Opéra-bouffe in 3 acts

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

The fourth of Offenbach’s great opéras-bouffes burlesqueing ancient historical legend or mythology (after Orphée aux enfers, Geneviève de Brabant and Le Pont des soupirs), La Belle Hélène was also his first written with the authorial team of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who would go on to supply him with the texts for many of his most famous works. It was also the first written expressly for its leading lady, Hortense Schneider, who would become the darling of pre-(Prussian)-war Paris in a series of similar rôles in Offenbach opéras-bouffes.

Hortense Schneider en „folie“, portrait by Alexis Pérignon.

Hortense Schneider en „folie“, portrait by Alexis Pérignon.

Being the most beautiful woman in the world can be a real burden. Especially when goddesses go round promising you to some exceptionally handsome shepherd (José Dupuis) as a prize in a contest, without stopping to think that you are already married to Ménélas, the King of Sparta (Kopp). There really isn’t much the beautiful Helen (Mlle Schneider) can do, when fate, Venus and the augur Calchas (Grenier) conspire to send her husband off to Crete, and then send her this ‘dream’ of the handsome shepherd, who is actually Prince Paris of Troy in disguise and … a very tangible dream. When the wretched husband objects noisily to being divinely cuckolded, Venus revengefully sends a plague of immorality upon Greece, and poor hard-done-by Ménélas gets the blame. He sends for the grand priest of Cythera, who prescribes a pilgrimage to Venus’ shrine for the almost-lapsed Queen, but all is not what it seems: when Helen is safely aboard the island-bound ship the priest throws off his disguise — it is Paris, he’s got Helen in his hands for the length of a whole sea voyage, and the Trojan War can now take place.

Offenbach’s score was one of his gayest and most memorable. Paris’s sweetly tenorizing tale of his Judgement (`Au mont Ida trois deesses’), Helen’s celebration of `Amours divins!’, her invocation of the interfering Venus (`Dis-moi, Venus’), and Paris and Helen’s waltzing attempts to convince themselves that their lovemaking is all a dream (`Oui! C’est un rêve’) were the lyrical highlights of the evening. Then, in contrast, came the swingeing march (`Voici les rois de Grèce’) which introduced individually the famous Kings of Greece from a burlesque Agamemnon (Couder) to a boiling Achilles (Guyon) and the twin Ajaxes (Hamburger, Andof), the bouncing Patriotic Trio for Calchas, Agamemnon and Ménélas (`Lorsque la Grèce est un champ de carnage’), and a jolly lad-about-town number (`Au Cabaret du labyrinthe’) for a monocled, travesty Orestes (Léa Silly), as well as such extravagant follies as the dazzling tyrolienne (in ancient Greece!) of the last act finale, sung by a yodelling Paris in his disguise as the Grand Priest.

Cogniard’s production of La Belle Hélène hit several sticky patches. A feud between the star and the second lady, Mlle Silly, was temporarily pasted over, but when the Judgement of Paris number, the tenor’s best spot, went for nothing at dress rehearsal, Offenbach decided drastically to rewrite the number. Overnight, he composed three different settings of the verses. He summoned Dupuis the next morning, ordered him to choose the one he liked best, then set to orchestrate it whilst the tenor learned his new melody. As in so many other cases, the last-minute song proved one of the great gems of the score.

The reviews of the show were mixed, but it got some splendid publicity from the indignant antics of the more rabid critics.

One, who had reviled the authors for defiling the sacred works of classical antiquity with their burlesque, was taken down a peg by the revelation that he was unable to read a word of Greek. After a slow start, the show became first popular and then both enormously popular and enormously fashionable. It ran right through the more than six months to the summer recess, and returned later in 1865 for further performances whilst the authors worked on its successor and the first burlesque, a glance at La Belle Hélène dans son menage (G Rose/Merenville), appeared at the Nouveautés (11 July 1867). In Belgium, Messrs Booch and Hivry churned out a musequel which they called Siège de Troie. And at the same time La Belle Hélène began its dissemination through the world’s theatres.

Marie Geistinger as Offenbach's Helena, one of her greatest theatrical triumphs.

Marie Geistinger as Offenbach’s Helena, one of her greatest theatrical triumphs.

Friedrich Strampfer was first off the mark with his production (ad F Zell, Julius Hopp) at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, and he scored an unmitigated triumph. The young Marie Geistinger caused a sensation as the lightly clad and distinctly schöne Helena, and, with Albin Swoboda as her Paris, Karl Blasel as Ménélas, and Carl Adolf Friese (Agamemnon), Matthias Rott (Calchas) and Frln Beyer (Orestes) in support, the Theater an der Wien company played the piece a splendid 65 times during its first nine months in the repertoire, in spite again of some organised opposition amongst the ‘high-art’ pundits and journalists who railed against the burlesquing of antiquity and against the brilliant gaiety of the piece. Disinformation was sprayed through the international press (‘the educated classes show the cold shoulder .. [it] would have been withdrawn after a few nights’ performance had not vast expense been incurred…’), but Vienna clearly had sufficient uneducated and un-press-believing classes to make Die schöne Helena a severe hit. Geistinger clocked up the show’s 200th performance (to the Menelaos of Girardi) on 30 December 1875.

The show was seen in Prague and in Berlin in German, with Geistinger repeating her Vienna rôle, but apparently in a different adaptation, written by Ernst Dohm, which inexplicably (to me) omitted the patriotic trio. Once again the star and the show were greeted with some vilifying comments from the press, the Preussische Zeitung railing hectically against `this Jewish speculation on the spirit of modern society — a speculation which, in the most refined manner and with the aid of music, scoffs at, ridicules and caricatures whatever is regarded as high and sacred in domestic life’. As ever, this tantrumming didn’t hurt business.

If the German production caused a ‘moral’ scandal, the Belgian one raised fuss of a different kind. The Galeries Saint-Hubert produced La Belle Hélène (3 June 1865) with Dupuis as Paris without asking Offenbach and his authors. And when the composer took manager Delvil to court, he lost. The court decided that the copyright laws at the time meant that any Belgian theatre could play any French piece, without asking, as long as the due royalties were paid. The La Belle Hélène case became a precedent, and Stockholm’s Sodra Theatre (11 June 1865) was quick off the mark with its ‘free’ vernacular production (ad E A Wallmark) of the new hit opéra-bouffe.

The first English-language version was heard in London, when F C Burnand’s much tampered-with Helen, or Taken from the Greek was mounted at the Adelphi Theatre with Theresa Furtado as its Helen, Mrs Alfred Mellon playing Paris in travesty, and the comedians Paul Bedford (Calchas) and Johnnie Toole (Agamemnon) in support, for some 200 nights, but, after London had seen Schneider’s performance of the original French show (St James’s Theatre 13 July 1868), a more faithful version was made for British consumption by Charles Lamb Kenney. This one was produced at the Gaiety Theatre by John Hollingshead (18 July 1871) with Australia’s Julia Mathews as its Helen and Constance Loseby another travesty Paris. With Annie Tremaine also playing in travesty as Orestes, the cross-dressing traditions of British burlesque were well maintained. Burnand had a second and more dignified try when he redid La Belle Hélène for the vast stage of the Alhambra and its star team of Kate Santley (Helen), Rose Bell (Paris) and Harry Paulton (Menelaos).. The production ran an excellent 109 consecutive performances.

New York, curiously, had its first taste of La Belle Hélène in German when Hedwig L’Arronge-Sury appeared as die schöne Helena in a repertoire production at the Stadttheater.

The city’s German theatres reproduced the piece regularly in the years that followed even although, just a few months after that première, Lucille Tostée and her company had given New York a taste of the original piece in all its French glory. Without creating the sensation that her Grande-Duchesse had done, Tostée’s La Belle Hélène ran for a full month of consecutive performances, and both she and the tirelessly touring American queen of opéra-bouffe, Marie Aimée, played Helen liberally round the country during their American seasons for as long as opéra-bouffe was alive. The first American English version (ad Molyneux St John) was seemingly done by the enterprising if approximate Worrell sisters — Sophie was Helen, Irene was Paris and Jennie was Orestes — in 1868 (I can find no confirmation of a supposed performance in Chicago in 1867), followed up in 1869 (28 April) by something apparently equally approximate called Paris, or the Judgement (ad C Rattray from Burnand’s version!) produced at the Waverley theatre by the Elise Holt burlesque troupe with its manager as Orestes, and in 1870 by Kelly and Leon’s inevitable and superior parody La Belle L-N (July 1870) with Leon as Helen and Kelly as Paris, but a more substantial English-language version appeared in 1899 (ad Louis Harrison) when a version of the show was mounted at the Casino Theater with Offenbach’s score improved by Ludwig Englander and Lillian Russell starred as a well-rounded Helen for 52 performances.

The Scandinavian countries were amongst the first to stage their versions of La Belle Hélène, Italian and Spanish adaptations were swiftly mounted and, as always, Hungary was amongst the quickest to have a vernacular version of the show on the stage.

Strangely, that version (ad Endre Latabár) was first mounted in Kassa, and Szép Helena was seen in Szeged (w Antónia Hetényi), Arad, Koloszvár, Miskolc, Nagyvárad and Debrecen (both these last two with the young Lujza Blaha as Helen) before playing Budapest for the first time, four years after the Zell/Hopp German version had already been seen there. Ilka Medgyaszay (Helen), Ferenc Halmi (Paris) and Ferenc Erczi (Ménélas) led the initial Várszinház production, which was overshadowed a dozen years later (7 October 1882) when the Népszinház took the show into its repertoire and mounted it with a big-gun cast: Ilka Pálmay (Helen), János Kápolnai (Paris), Vidor Kassai (Menelaos) and Elek Solymossy (Calchas).

Australia, rather than importing the show, manufactured its own version. W M Akhurst’s Paris the Prince and Helen the Fair or the Giant Horse and the Siege of Troy (Theatre Royal, Melbourne 11 April 1868) used some of Offenbach’s music, but mixed it with chunks of Un Ballo in maschera, Les Huguenots and some music-hall melodies.

Marion Dunn (Paris) and Miss Chester (Helen) featured, but the stars of the evening were manager H M Harwood as a deeply depressed Cassandra and Richard Stewart as a comical Patroclus with a yen for Helen. Characters which Meilhac and Halévy had not included in their version. The colony got its first genuine La Belle Hélène in 1876, when Emilie Melville, Armes Beaumont (Paris), Jeannie Winston (Orestes), Henry Bracy (Ménélas) and George Leopold (Calchas) appeared at Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre in an uncredited version. Soon after, Australians were able to see Emily Soldene’s more Rubensesque Helen, as Miss Melville moved on to take her version of the piece to India and round the Pacific and adjacent oceans in her repertoire of opéras-bouffes and -comiques.

In his novel "Nana", Emile Zola describes a "Belle Hélène"  performance that is only slightly veiled as "The Blonde Venus". Zola makes it very clear why the original diva attracted such attention, and caused such a sensation.

In his novel “Nana”, Emile Zola describes a “Belle Hélène” performance that is only slightly veiled as “The Blonde Venus”. Zola makes it very clear why the original diva attracted such attention, and caused such a sensation.

In France, La Belle Hélène established itself as one of the staples of the Offenbach repertoire. The Variétés remounted it in 1876 with Anna Judic as Helen and Dupuis in his original rôle, and again ten years later with the same pair still featured. Judic gave her last Parisian Helen in 1889 and was succeeded by Jeanne Granier (1890) and then by Juliette Simon-Girard (1899). The Opéra-Comique’s Marguerite Carré appeared as Helen to the Paris of Fernand Francell and the Calchas of Max Dearly in 1919 (Gaîté-Lyrique 5 October), Géori Boue starred in a 1960 revival (Théâtre Mogador 25 February) and an undersized revival was mounted at the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1976 (24 September). Since then, more substantial revivals have played at the Opéra-Comique (25 April 1983, 21 September 1985) and at the Théâtre de Paris (13 November 1986) with multiple casts, and in 1999 a sadly tawdry and gimmicky ‘director’s’ mounting, showing no comprehension of the opéra-bouffe idiom, was seen at the Festival d’Aix..

In 1926 a sort of sequel, written by Fernand Nozire and set to music by Fernand Raphael, was mounted at Paris’s Théâtre Daunou under the title of Hélène.

Elsewhere, the piece has also kept its popularity if, occasionally, lost its identity. Vienna was amongst the first to butcher the show when Gábor Steiner produced his own `burlesque opérette from the French’ Die schöne Helena von heute (w Leopold Krenn, mus arr Ludwig Gothov-Gruneke) with Helene Ballot playing her namesake, as part of the 1911 and 1912 seasons at Ronacher. Max Reinhardt’s typically spectacular version of a grossly rewritten version of the show produced at Berlin’s Theater am Kurfürstendamm, in 1931, with opera star Jarmila Novotna starred as a Helen with a very much larger voice than Mlle Schneider would ever have dreamed of possessing (or Offenbach of hearing), Egon Fridell (Paris), Hans Moser, Theo Lingen, Friedl Schuster, Otto Wallburg and Max Pallenberg as Ménélas, favoured the visual side rather than the textual, and a subsequent remake of this version for London, `adapted’ by A P Herbert and (musically) by E W Korngold to the extent of inventing a wholly new third act, won gasps of approval for Oliver Messel’s extravagant settings and the two-thousand-ship beauty of its Helen (Evelyn Laye) as George Robey turned his hand to the comicalities of Ménélas. The `authors’ of this thoroughly raped Helen collected Offenbach’s, Meilhac’s and Halévy’s royalties through 193 performances, and producer C B Cochran lost a small fortune.

Vienna proved particularly partial to the show. When memories of Geistinger’s Helen (seen at the Carltheater again in 1887) had barely faded, Ilka Pálmay brought her Spartan sexpot to the Theater an der Wien (1891) and was followed the next year by Minna Baviera and, as the show resurfaced regularly in the repertoire through the 1890s, by Julie Kopácsi-Karczag, Frln Frey, Annie Dirkens and others. During the pre-war years of the new century, both the principal Viennese houses played the show in repertoire with Kopácsi-Karczag, Dirkens and Pálmay being joined by Betty Stojan, Frau Saville, Flora Siding, Dora Keplinger and Phila Wolff as the latest Helenas until a major revival was launched in 1911 (12 October) with Mizzi Günther playing Helen to the Ménélas of Louis Treumann and the Paris of Ludwig Herold. Later the same year (31 December) the show was seen at the Volksoper with Maria Jeritza in the starring rôle as another very vocal Greek queen. The show reappeared in Vienna regularly both during the war (Carltheater, Bürgertheater w Ida Russka) and after, proving itself the most enduring of Offenbach’s pieces on the Viennese stage. It was most recently played in Vienna in 1990 at the Wiener Kammeroper with English soprano Gaynor Miles starred as a particularly glamorous and lightly clad Helena. In Budapest, István Zágon’s adaptation was still to be seen at the F*o*városi Operett Színház with Zsuzsa Kalocsai as its Helen in 1994 (11 March).

If, in Germany, the butchering begun by Reinhardt and his allies was followed up by more butchering, in London the wrongs of A P Herbert were righted, 30 years later, when the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company produced a fine, funny and faithful new translation (ad Geoffrey Dunn 31 May 1963) with Joyce Blackham starred as a luscious mezzo-soprano Helen. The same company (English National Opera) revived that version in 1975, and the show was given a later staging by the ill-fated New Sadler’s Wells company.

Korngold at the piano, 1929.

Korngold at the piano, 1929.

New York also went through a version of the souped-up Reinhardt/Korngold version under the title Helen Goes to Troy (24 April 1944), with Novotna repeating her heavy-weight Helen 14 years on, and a programme which actually boasted `Korngold … has not only rearranged and reorchestrated the original Offenbach score, but also interpolated 14 newly adapted numbers, substituting [these] for some wilted music pieces of the original score’. Herr Korngold’s Offenbach hash lasted 96 performances. La Belle Hélène survived this and other tasteless attacks (a La Belle perpetrated by one William Roy curled up before getting to Broadway) and it has made its way, as elsewhere, into American opera houses. It was played in 1976 at the New York City Opera with Karan Armstrong as Helen. Fortunately with all the bits Herr Korngold considered wilted safely back in their brilliant and beautiful place.

The tale of the Iliad and the siege of Troy was a fertile source for musical theatre writers. Achilles and Aeneas, Dido and Oenone, Cassandra, Hector and the rest of them were favourite subjects with C18th century operatic composers. The rape of Helen was operaticized by Freschi as early as 1677. Of more recent operatic Trojans, Berlioz’s double-header, Les Troyens à Carthage and La Prise de Troie, and Michael Tippett’s King Priam remain amongst the better known. In the musical theatre, the story of Paris and his ‘judgement’ (or lack of it) featured in such pieces as Burnand’s burlesque of Paris, or Vive Lemprière, Terrasse’s successful latter day opéra-bouffe Paris ou le bon Juge, and the American even more latter-day opéra-bouffe The Golden Apple, the siege of Troy was made into an Astley’s Theatre entertainment by O’Keeffe (The Siege of Troy, 21 July 1795) and burlesqued by Robert Brough (Theatre Royal, Lyceum, 27 December 1858), Australia’s W M Akhurst and by Belgium’s MM Booch and Hivry, and the post-sacking story of Dido and Aeneas, famously set as an opera by Purcell, was more amusingly treated in F C Burnand’s successful burlesque of Dido and in the Parisian opéra-bouffe Didon (Blangini/Adolphe Belot, Léon Journault) produced at the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1866 (5 April).

Austria: Theater an der Wien Die schöne Helena 17 March 1865; Germany: Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater Die schöne Helena 13 May 1865; UK: Adelphi Theatre Helen, or Taken from the Greek 30 June 1866; Hungary: Kassa Szép Helena 7 March 1866, Budai Színkör (Ger) 6 May 1866, Várszinház Szép Helena 30 April 1870; USA: Stadttheater, New York Die schöne Helena 3 December 1867, National Theatre, Cincinatti (Fr) 6 April 1868, Théâtre Français (Fr) 26 March 1868, New York Theater Paris and Helen, or the Greek Elopement 13 April 1868; Australia: Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney 31 May 1876