La Belle Hélène synopsis
La Belle Hélène synopsis
Music by Jacques Offenbach
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after classical mythology
First performed: 1864
A public square in Sparta
Preparations are underway for the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the death of Adonis. The populace lay flowers in front of the altar, but Calchas, the Grand Augur, is disappointed by their offerings. He wants oxen and sheep for Zeus, who has been in a bad mood since the beauty contest on Mount Ida when Aphrodite, rather than Athena or Zeus’ wife Hera, was chosen by a shepherd-boy as the most beautiful of the pantheon.
Helen enters, accompanied by a group of virgins mourning Adonis. They implore Aphrodite for love once again to enrich their lives. Helen confides to Calchas that she is obsessed by the story of Mount Ida and by the shepherd-boy. She reminds him that Aphrodite has promised the shepherd-boy the love of the most beautiful woman in the world; and is not the most beautiful woman in the world Helen? Fate is a terrible burden and prevents Helen enjoying a calm and bourgeois life with her husband, Menelaus.
Accompanied by two women of easy virtue, Orestes enters and recounts the exploits of the previous night. Calchas sends them away: there would be a scandal if such a merry threesome entered the temple.
Alone at last, Calchas begins to prepare a sacrifice when a shepherd-boy interrupts him by asking if he’s received a letter from Aphrodite. At that moment a carrier-dove lands bearing the letter: the goddess orders that Paris (the shepherd-boy) must meet Helen. The augur, dumbfounded, recognizes Paris as the son of King Priam of Troy, and takes him to Helen. She immediately falls in love with the handsome young man.
Their encounter is cut short by the arrival of the kings of Greece, organizers of, and participants in, the Olympic Games, dedicated on this occasion not to sport but to the arts. The contest is one of musical charades; Paris solves the riddle and wins the competition. He reveals to everyone his true identity; Helen awards him the prize and Menelaus, relieved that Paris is of noble birth, invites him to dinner. But Paris wants to be alone with Helen; Calchas solves the problem: he fakes a command from Zeus that Menelaus must leave at once for Crete.
Helen’s apartments in the royal palace
Helen’s maids present her with magnificent – though very revealing – dresses for the kings’ grand party. The queen rejects them as she wants to conceal her beauty in order to resist Paris’s advances. Better still, when he is announced, she asks her maid Bacchis to make him wait and stands for a moment in front of the portrait of her parents. After an invocation to Aphrodite, Helen feels better and asks that Paris be admitted. When she resists him, in spite of the two well-known ways of seducing a woman (through love, and by force), he leaves, promising her a third way.
The kings march past on their way to the banquet.
Helen, in despair, has the guard outside her chamber doubled. She explains to Calchas that she will not go down to dinner as she’s afraid of seeing Paris again and of her feelings for him; instead, she will seek refuge in solitude and sleep. She asks Calchas for a dream in which she can be united with Paris. She falls asleep; a slave enters her bedroom: it’s Paris in disguise. Calchas leaves him alone with Helen.
Helen awakes, but on seeing Paris believes she’s still asleep and experiencing the dream promised by Calchas. Their love-making cannot be forbidden since it’s only a dream! She asks Paris about Aphrodite and whether she or the goddess is more beautiful. But the ‘dream’ is interrupted by Menelaus, who has returned unexpectedly from Crete. Seething with rage, he asks for the kings to come. However much they explain to him that a husband should not return home without warning, Menelaus will not listen. To appease Menelaus, Agamemnon sends Paris to Troy.
A beach-resort in Nauplia
Because of the treatment of Paris, Aphrodite has taken her revenge by forcing an erotic frenzy on the population of Greece. Agamemnon and Calchas, confused and shivering in bathing costumes, are dismayed. Helen and Menelaus enter, arguing. She has come to Nauplia out of season to find peace and escape the question repeatedly asked by her husband: why had she said, ‘so it wasn’t a dream’? Exasperated by him, Helen threatens Menelaus not to push her too far: what would he say if something really had happened between her and Paris? She storms off, and Agamemnon and Calchas suggest Menelaus forget about being a husband and concentrate instead on being a monarch. The bacchanalia must stop; Menelaus must sacrifice himself, give away his wife, and humbly accept the gods’ wishes. But Menelaus has had a better idea. He has sent to Cythera for the Arch-Augur of Aphrodite: who better qualified to appease the goddess?
At that moment, a flower-decorated galley draws alongside. Aboard is Paris, disguised as Aphrodite’s augur. He reminds everyone that to appease Aphrodite they should be happy, not downcast; he then tells Menelaus that Helen must come with him to Cythera to make a sacrifice. Menelaus agrees to this request. Helen recognizes Paris and resists, and it’s only by popular demand that she eventually boards the galley and sets sail. Away from the shore, the Arch-Augur reveals himself to be Paris. Helen now belongs to him.
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