June 18, 2019
Opera Review: La Belle Helene
Ed Tapper READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Having scored with productions of Gluck's "Paride ed Elena" and Richard Strauss' "Die Agyptische Helena," Odyssey Opera is bringing its Helen of Troy season to a delightful close at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, with Jacques Offenbach's hilarious spoof, "La Belle Helene." In it, the comic master wonderfully lampoons the mythological characters involved in the legend of Paris and Helen; but, instead of a beauty contest, there is an intelligence test; and none of the ancient heroes seemed to fare very well.
Odyssey Opera's "La Belle Helene" was sung in English, both the music and (adhering to the opera comique tradition) the abundant spoken dialogue interspersed between the musical numbers. But with no super-titles, a good deal of the sung lyrics and dialogue was unintelligible. However, one could certainly appreciate most of the comic situations, especially with Odyssey's vibrant staging.
Frank Kelley's exuberant direction meticulously captured the styles of the French Second Empire, the era in which the opera was composed. The unusually, lavish sets and extravagant period costumes proved a visual treat. Kelley managed to put his own individual, comic spin on the work while retaining Offenbach's unflagging hilarity. There were even a few in-jokes, like the setting of Act 3 "Patriotic Trio," where the singers were posed like the figures in Edouard Manet's controversial painting "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe," a work created the year before the opera was completed. One of the gals from the chorus was a good enough sport to step in and go nude for the recreation.
Physically and vocally exquisite, Ginger Costa-Jackson was the perfect choice to play the title role of "La Belle Helene." And she sang the role superbly. The young mezzo has a voice of great power and range, with an unusual timbre, and a varied spectrum of color. It is the ideal voice for Bizet's "Carmen," a role she has already begun to perform. This is a major talent to be watched.
Along with Costa-Jackson, Adam Fisher made his Odyssey Opera debut with this production, portraying Helene's lover, Paris. His is a small but lovely tenor voice, which improved as the performance progressed. Early on, his high notes were forced and pinched; but his ease in the middle register, and solid musicianship, in addition to his good looks, made him a striking Paris.
All of the supporting roles were well sung and acted. As Calchas, Ben Wager was particularly impressive, his solid basso, and superlative diction, bringing across the music and text with clarity. Possessing an attractive baritone and keen comic timing, David McFerrin excelled as Agamemnon.
Gil Rose did a splendid job keeping the orchestra together in his taut reading of Offenbach's jauntily rhythmic score. He brought out some gorgeous sounds from the ensemble, in moments like the famous waltz theme that recurs through the work. The chorus deserves special praise for their solid ensemble and mastering the elaborate choreography of Kelley's intricate staging.
Odyssey Opera has announced its upcoming, 2019-20 roster, and it promises to be a knockout season. The theme is the English ruling family, the Tudors, and, in keeping with Odyssey's tradition of imaginative programming, rarities will abound! From the Bel Canto era, there will be two choice offerings, Rossini's "Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra," and, from the pen of one of Rossini's contemporaries, Giovanni Pacini, "Maria, Regina d'Inghilterra." An obscurity from the French Grand Romantic repertoire, Saint-Saens' "Henry VIII" will open the season in September. Odyssey will also stage the world premiere of "A Chronicle of Nine," a 1984 opera by the American composer Arnold Rosner. The season will conclude in 2020 with two contrasting works by British composers, Britten's majestic "Gloriana," and Edward German's charming comedy, "Merrie England."
For more information about Odyssey Opera, visit the Odyssey Opera website.