May 19, 2008

Laurent Pelly and Offenbach

Laurent Pelly
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2000 (revival at the ENO in may 2006)


Hélène - Felicity Lott
Paris - Yann Beuron
Ménélas - Michel Sénéchal
Agamemnon - Laurent Naouri
Calchas - François Le Roux

Marc Minkwoski
Musiciens du Louvre

First, I want to emphasize how Felicity Lott is the true jewel of this DVD. Her singing and acting are indeed very convincing.

As for the production itself, as usual in Pelly's team, the work of Agathe Mélinand rewriting and updating the spoken parts is hilarious and very well done. Unfortunately for Pelly, that's when the compliments stop. The choreography by Laura Scozzi is off, the use of the chorus on stage is as awful as can be (without even mentioning their singing performance which is no better than average), the costumes are noticeably unbearable and the overall result is less than convincing.

Pelly, when staging a comic opera (especially Offenbach's), always has the same approach: rewriting the libretto with modern references and staging the action in the contemporary world (not in La Fille du Régiment where he chose WWI, with was a breath of fresh air). His sets are always over the top to create a kind of parallel reality where time and space collide into a clownesque atmosphere, a lot like I Pagliacci, if you think of it (especially with the dream inside the dream - when Hélène ends up in bed with Paris while Ménélas returns, with sheep appearing on stage); that impression is reinforced by the way he defines the movements of the actors or the chorus: always speedy, staccatoish and excessive. The problem is, it gets redundant after a few productions. And redundant inevitably leads to boredom.

Take this production of La Belle Hélène for instance.
Many of the tricks he used there could be interesting, hadn't he recycled almost all of them for last December La Vie Parisienne here in Lyon. I think the anachronism between the singing parts and the spoken dialogue is one of the true forte of his work.
The problem specifically here is that the characters are very unupdatable. Agamenmon wearing a bath sheet, Ajax with a broom on top of his helmet, Calchas dressed as a caveman, all that is nothing if not awkward and ugly.

Pelly chose to focus the action around the dysfunctional wedding of Ménélas (a very funny Michel Sénéchal) and Hélène (this, in itself, is a valid point), making the rest of the characters outcasts. Whether he intended to purposely create such an mess is the big question I have regarding this production, but the result leaves me very sceptical. The whole opera could be entitled "Hélène's dream"; the sole element of the set in the first act is the bed, in the center of the stage, where Hélène and Ménélas sleep as an old couple would do (far apart); Calchas, appearing in the second scene, is definitely portrayed as her imaginary friend, always offering a shoulder to cry on.

Everything else (the chorus, the kings, Paris) is her little fantasy and her salvation. The intention is laudable, the result doesn't live up to the expectations. And the blame falls mainly on Pelly, for not being able to make something beautiful out of it. I know beauty is not on the directors' minds these days, but I think it's a shame to sacrifice the aesthetics on the altar of intellectual supremacy.

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