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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 20, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 47
A bright bit of fluff: Offenbach's La Belle Hélène
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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A bright bit of fluff: Offenbach's La Belle Hélène

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

JACQUES OFFENBACH
LA BELLE HÉLÈNE
PHILHARMONIKER HAMBURG
BLU-RAY


Once in a while you encounter a great, new voice that is lit up by a fiery temperament, good musicianship and a vibrant stage presence, and you celebrate such a discovery. Much later, you meet this voice again, this time on a Met Live in HD show at the cinema, but there's a rough edge that has crept into that formerly perfect instrument. And it makes you wonder what's wrong. Did she have a bad day? But along comes a new Blu-ray disc of the same singer in a starring role, and your worst fears are confirmed. All the warmth and strength have gone out of the voice. The cause in this case is a force of nature, namely age.* That fiery temperament is still there, but at 57 the singer doesn't any longer have quite the physical means to support her big sound.

Such a singer is American mezzo Jennifer Larmore. The Blu-ray is Jacques Offenbach's La Belle Hélène in a delightful 2015 production from Hamburg, perfectly captured in glorious sound and picture. Larmore is Hélène, 'the most beautiful woman in the world,' who is the center of action in this rather silly satire of a narrow-minded society. Fortunately, she still has her considerable stagecraft and her good looks and is thus able to win an audience who perhaps don't know what she used to sound like. Overlook the dry sound of her middle voice, and she'll give you a good time.

Larmore is surrounded by excellent singers of every range, including a fine young tenor who sings Hélène's dashing Pâris. Jun-Sang Han is slender and handsome, with a stage presence that is natural and appealing. His tenor is impressive in its warmth and beauty, able to sing both loud and soft in all ranges. In this show, his wig and general looks reminded me of a cute Harpo Marx. At the Staatsoper Hamburg he has recently sung many roles, including Tamino, the shepherd and steersman in Tristan, Don Ottavio, Ferrando, Cassio, and Nemorino. It remains to be seen whether he has all that it takes to make a great career. (See footnote.)

This 'Opéra-bouffe en trois actes' is of course full of Offenbach's delightful melodies, all performed here with great ebullience. Costumes and make-up are playful and effective, and the cast is full of skilled entertainers as well as fine singers. The setting has been moved from Offenbach's classical spoof to a cruise ship in the hippy days of the 1960s. No harm done, for the silly plot is but a frame from which to hang a long series of playful 'numbers.' It does, however, become rather repetitious and even a little boring before the end. But everyone gives it their best, even if it's all for a bright piece of fluff.

So, we say hello to a fine young tenor in Jun-Sang Han and goodbye to a once glorious mezzo, Jennifer Larmore.



*Let's pause a minute on what it takes to have a long and exciting career in opera. First, of course, there's a good voice. Second, good health. (You can't be cancelling performances all the time.) Then, there's musicianship. And a perfect technique, confidence, decent acting chops, a good work ethic (hard work!), a passion for music and performing, and on and on. Last, but not least is the physical strength and energy to support the kind of breath control required to make the voice strong and healthy. Age inevitably takes away that strength. Very few singers get to 60 and still perform at their best. Consider what it takes, and enjoy all the more the greatest singers when they come along and manage to stay with us for a wonderful, long career. Even Maria Callas, who many consider the greatest opera singer ever, stumbled and had to quit way too soon. The cause of her early retirement has been debated over and over: too much weight loss? too much partying? a flawed vocal technique? etc. A great singer who stays in good vocal health over the decades is indeed cause for celebration!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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