Sooner or later it had to happen. The opera, with its seriousness, majesty and ‘shoes on platforms’, had to expect something lighter and more cheerful, which does not mean that it is less ambitious and easier.
The premiere of La belle Hélène by Jacques Offenbach at Theatre des Varietes in Paris (17 December 1864) became a true triumph of the composer, and he himself became the creator of an unknown type of opera buffa – a parody composed of musical parts linked by a spoken dialogue; in a word, the opera’s younger sister was born – an operetta – as Offenbach described many of his works.
La belle Hélène delights with music that gushes with elegance, which is exquisitely instrumentalised even in the lightest parts, sparkles with lightness and wit, and the text abounds in funny situations and numerous parodies of serious Greek myths. The libretto was created by masters Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy who were assisted by the Duke of Morna himself, the Emperor’s half-brother, which was of great importance in mitigating the numerous interventions of censorship. Apart from the parodies of political personalities, the work was also a kind of grand opera, although Offenbach, with his compositional pen, did not treat the performers favourably, giving them a lot of spectacular and difficult arias. La belle Hélène became one of the most popular operettas, and the greatest stars of the ‘big sister’ are facing it on the stages of renowned theatres – including operas – of the world.
Unfortunately, Hélène did not come to our Theatre; however, we hosted another hit by Offenbach – Orpheus in the Underworld (1970) and twice his excellent opera The Tales of Hoffmann (1973 and 2007).
Is that not enough? Perhaps, but there is still a lot ahead of us…
Jacques Offenbach, caricature, author: Nadar based on a drawing by Édouard Riou