Opera Review: Strong Cast Animates ‘La belle Helene’

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    Augusta Caso and Peter Lake appear in a scene from Opera North's production of "La belle Helene." Courtesy photograph

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    Emily Geller, center, cast in the role of Helene's male cousin Orestes, appears in a scene from Opera North's production of "La belle Helene." Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2017 12:05:02 AM
Modified: 8/3/2017 12:05:09 AM

Before Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, she was simply known as the beautiful queen of Sparta. But, as Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera La belle Helene posits in what’s sort of a satirical prequel to the Iliad, the royal life wasn’t quite doing it for her.

Opera North’s production of La belle Helene, the second show in the company’s 35th anniversary season, puts a snarky spin on an ancient epic and in doing so, subverts the fusty seriousness often associated with antiquity, and with much of the opera genre itself.

Though a familiarity with classical myth doesn’t hurt (and can certainly enhance such lines as, “Clytemnestra? … She’s a bit murdery for me, anyway.”), the plot doesn’t require much prior knowledge in order to follow it. The songs are performed in French, but English dialogue and supertitles provide the necessary context.

Paris, a mortal, has recently found himself in the fraught position of having to name the most beautiful of three goddesses, including Venus, the goddess of love.

It wasn’t much of a contest, though: Venus bribed Paris (Peter Lake) by promising him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helene (Augusta Caso). That Helene wasn’t consulted about this may raise more eyebrows today than it did when the opera debuted in 1860, but it’s worth remembering that the ancient Greeks weren’t big on consent, anyway, and that the premise for the plot is not an endorsement of it.

We meet Helene pacing the resplendent lobby of the Hotel Jupiter, mulling over her fate. As luck would have it, she’d recently married Menelaus (Christopher Nelson), the king of Sparta, and even if she isn’t entirely smitten with him, “the timing is most inconvenient,” she notes with a pout.

On principle, she vows to resist the fate that’s been assigned to her, but this resolve lasts only moments. When Paris walks into the lobby, dressed as a lowly shepherd, Helene is blindsided by her attraction to him. So begins an awkward, then unbridled affair between the star-crossed lovers, which poor Menelaus has the bad luck of interrupting at the most inopportune times.

Caso makes a captivating and deeply charming Opera North debut as Helene. She establishes an instant rapport with the audience with her sly grin and can-you-believe-this-guy eyerolls, small mannerisms that add spunk and complexity to a character that history has rarely portrayed in three dimensions.

Even more impressive than her acting talent is her voice. Often, when singers belt as powerfully as Caso does, they look as if they’re in danger of bursting a blood vessel; Caso’s resounding soprano seems to pour out of her effortlessly, and her impressive vocal control makes hers a voice that could truly launch a thousand ships.

Among the overall excellent cast are a few standouts: Lake’s portrayal of Paris — a mere mortal who somehow lands a daughter of Zeus — is relatably earnest, and his voice carries a lush, warm timbre. And Emily Geller, wisely cast as Helene’s cousin Orestes, conveys a playboy-posh swagger as only a woman can. Kurt Domoney’s deft choreography amplifies Geller’s knack for comedy: At one point, she unleashes a saucy dance on a tabletop that elicited peals of laughter from the audience.

The play is rife with moments of physical humor such as this, but it’s at its cleverest when it makes self-referential jabs at its own genre. During an impromptu quiz in Act I, staged with aplomb like a campy game show hosted by soothsayer Calchas (Eric Lindsey), one of the riddles is: What is born each night, but dies at dawn?

“My love life?” guesses one guest.

“An appreciation for French operetta?” quips another.

It also pokes fun at the solemnity of Greek epics, such as when Agamemnon (Bradley Christensen), the brother of Menelaus, announces his arrival at the Hotel Jupiter with a lyric that translates as, “This fantastic beard I am wearing tells you I’m Agamemnon.”

The beard, with tinsel-like highlights woven into grey Botticelli curls, really is fantastic. It’s one of costume designer Jack Maisenbach’s hilariously nuanced touches, but the overall costume design also reflects Maisenbach’s eye for flair. The actors wear, among other get-ups, flapper dresses, three-piece suits, vintage bathing suits and hats with plumes, creating an aesthetic that is vintage, but markedly un-ancient. It’s a satisfying departure from the toga-ed Grecian grandeur I expected to see, and one that embodies what makes a comic opera so appealing: It refuses to take itself, or its subject matter, too seriously.

La belle Helene invites the audience not to take itself too seriously, either. The script features some nods to Hanover that those familiar with the town will appreciate, including references to the Canoe Club restaurant, and, memorably, the “glistening pectorals of the Dartmouth rowing team.”

Moments like these make the show fly by at a sprightly, yet measured pace that the orchestra, conducted by Louis Burkot, matches brilliantly. Though there were a few moments Tuesday night when the score was so thunderous that it drowned out the singers’ voices (though, it should be noted, never Caso’s), the musicians’ performance was precise, yet expressive.

Of course, the great inside joke between Offenbach and the audience is that everyone knows, more or less, what will come after the curtain call; the fun lies in witnessing the tension between, and ultimate resolution of, fate and free will.

It’s a performance fit for the gods. We mortals are lucky to have it.

La Belle Helene will run at the Lebanon Opera House tonight, Saturday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. For tickets ($20 to $90) or more information, visit operanorth.org or call the box office at 603-448-0400.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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