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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

OPERA REVIEW | Royal Conservatory of Music's Updated La Belle Helene an Amusing Romp

By Joseph So on March 19, 2015

RCM: La Belle Helene
Helen/Christina Campsall; Paris/Asitha Tennekoon; Menelaus/Daniel Wheeler; Agamemnon/Tristan Jones; Calchas/Ronan McParland; Achille/Christopher Wattam; Oreste/Nadine Anyan Joel Ivany (director); Brahm Goldhamer (artistic director); Jennifer Nichols (choreographer); Camellia Koo (set); Ming Wong (costumes); Bonnie Beecher (lighting) Photo: Stewart Lowe

Royal Conservatory Orchestra and Chorus / Uri Mayer, conductor at Koerner Hall, Wednesday March 18th 2015.

Since its premiere on December 17th 1864, Offenbach’s La belle Helene has remained one of the most popular of French operettas. It’s easy to see why – a piece that takes place in mythical Greece, with larger than life characters caught in improbable situations, set to an inspired score full of memorable tunes. For a work that celebrated its 150th anniversary last December, its hold on the public remains strong. The core of the work isn’t so much about ancient Greece, but a spoof on contemporary social mores. As such, it lends itself to periodic updating.

I think I’ve seen about six or seven productions of La belle Helene over the years, and I’ve yet to see one that’s done completely “straight” directorially. The last one I saw was the Paris Opera Laurent Pelly production imported to Santa Fe Opera a few seasons back, starring mezzo Susan Graham and tenor William Burden. It was one of the more memorable evenings at the opera.

The Royal Conservatory of Music’s spring presentation of the Offenbach operetta followed the tradition of updating, with a brand new libretto by Michael Albano, bringing in plenty of North American lingo and contemporary references. Given the director was Joel Ivany, whose work in Against the Grain Theatre has made him Canada’s answer to Eurostyle Regieoper, one could expect a cutting edge take on this old warhorse.

I attended the opening night show on March 18th at Koerner Hall. As expected in a student production, the singers were young, full of energy, with fresh and promising voices. The creative team led by Ivany has injected a decidedly non-Gallic – and very much North-American-centric – aesthetic into the proceedings. If the Santa Fe Opera version reminded me of Broadway, the RCM performance this evening has the hallmark of a student production, which it is! I doubt very much a Central European updating of this warhorse would have incorporated into the piece what’s equivalent to a TV game show! That said, judging by the laughter in the audience, it worked.

A few comments on the physical production. RCM opera productions used to be in Mazzoleni Hall in the old building with a tiny staging area. Moving it into the new hall opened up more staging space and greater technical options, although it’s still not ideal – after all Koerner is not an opera house. That said, the productions I’ve seen the last three seasons – Cendrillon and Cunning Little Vixen come readily to mind – have all benefited from the new performing space.

This production continues the ingenious use of space, with the simplest of sets augmented by using the choir lofts and the auditorium aisles for entries and exits. With three acts and two intermissions, a large chorus and a full orchestra, this was not a simple show to put on. It was sung in French with English surtitles, a logical solution for the largely non-French audience. With a few exceptions  – mainly the women with very high speaking voices that didn’t carry – the singers did an admirable job projecting the spoken dialogues, and there was a huge amount of it! Choreographer Jennifer Nichols has devised a complex series of choreographed movements mainly for the chorus and occasionally for the principles.

The students were all game, but one could tell a few struggled a bit. It’s sometimes said that singers as a group can appear self-conscious when it comes to their bodies – at least that was true in the past. Perhaps a ‘less is more’ approach in terms of choreography would have been better?

Joseph So

Musically it was an enjoyable evening. The voices were youthful and fresh – to be sure, some were more ready for prime time than others. I was impressed with the Helene of Christina Campsall, who sang with a rich low mezzo and acted with flair. Tenor Asitha Tennekoon (Paris) has a nice high tenor with a slightly nasal quality, with some ring to the tone. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, he had problems with the high option in the conclusion of his act one aria, but to his credit, he recovered well and sang strongly in the next two acts – his is a voice of promise.

Among the supporting cast, Tristan Jones (Agamemnon) and Ronan McParland (Calchas) were particularly worthy of mention. The Royal Conservatory Orchestra played well under conductor Uri Mayer, a few moments when the singers were swarmed by the orchestra notwithstanding. In fact there was one point in act one when the dialogue was completely overwhelmed by the orchestra, likely some sort of miscue.

Director Joel Ivany did a creditable job with the updates. If I were to quibble – through it all, I kept thinking if it would have worked better if the singers were completely in modern dress. As it stands, the costumes are a bit of a mish-mash, lacking stylistic uniformity. These are minor quibbles and didn’t detract from the enjoyment by the audience, judging by the amount of hooting and hollering in the theatre. Second (and last) performance on Friday March 20th 7:30 pm at Koerner Hall.

Joseph So

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