We first see Helen in rehearsal, a temple priestess like Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Bali. Then she changes into a platinum blonde vamp (Jean Harlow). She is a preening film star, a pest for Calchas, the producer who is working on a film for Menelaus Productions – trade mark an MGM medallion with an irascible Yorkshire terrier.
Mariame Clément, whose seven-year stint in Regietheater Berlin has not impaired her native Gallic verve and sense of fun, has produced a smash hit that fields coherence, wit and intelligence in finely calibrated doses. Clément’s visual imagination, timing and canny deployment of cast and chorus owe much to Laurent Pelly’s rejigging of Offenbach but she actually improves on the template: the gags never outstay their welcome and clowning is kept under control. Julia Hansen’s brilliantly functional revolving set, divided into two by a cinema screen, provides fluid scene changes and a tool for some magically funny video work from fettFilm (Momme Hinrichs and Torge Møller).
Clément’s updating to black-and-white art deco Hollywood is more than a grab at eyebath aesthetics; her cinema icons are today’s equivalent of big names from antiquity. And the theme is folded into the action with natural ease: the love dream between Helen and Paris becomes a film and the finale has Paris in bomber jacket and ludicrous goggles flying in as Howard Hughes.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Helen is her best role to date. She is seductive, a fabulous clothes horse for some gorgeous gowns and shows off a warm mezzo that never smothers the words. Yann Beuron (Paris) reinforces his grip on the role, reeling off the scat scales and crackpot yodelling and bringing the house down. Franck Leguérinel is superb as the agitated Calchas and René Schirrer (Agamemnon) and Rodolphe Briand (Menelaus) provide vivacious support. Claude Schnitzler’s conducting is better at tub-thumping enthusiasm than layered refinement but it is a minor quibble in a performance of stunning professionalism.
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