La Belle Hélène, English National Opera, Coliseum <br></br> Arms and the Cow, Opera North, Bradford

A thousand ships? This Helen can't launch a dozen
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Pelly's production, which frames Offenbach's comedy of marital ennui in a modern-dress dream sequence, relies upon its audience accepting the notion that women do not lose their sexual allure after the age of 50. Indeed they don't. But Lott's Home Counties Helen is more Maureen Lipman than Helen Mirren. When singing, she could pass for a glamorous 30. In dialogue, and particularly in dialogue with her swaggering school-boyish Paris (Toby Spence), one wonders how a performer of her distinction can bear to skip on tippy-toes while speaking of her "girlish heart". On a more practical level, one wonders why Spence can't fake sexual attraction more convincingly.

Notwithstanding the lack of chemistry between Lott and Spence, Act I passes by in a pleasant flurry of visual jokes and Classical puns: Troy-boy, Homer-phobic, etc. The entrance of John Graham-Hall and Roland Wood as Ajax A and Ajax B - "They're both called Ajax, see!" - is the theatrical highlight of the evening, closely followed by Leah-Marian Jones, Amy Freston and Claire Wild as Orestes, Parthenis and Leona. Vocally, the hit is Jones's "Sing La La!", which has all the style and sauce the production is otherwise lacking. Notwithstanding Jones's fizz, Spence's electrifying top notes, and some subtle phrasing from conductor Emmanuel Joel, La Belle Hélène is more Lucozade than Lanson.

If dancing Nazis in gimp masks are your idea of fun, then you might enjoy David Pountney's production of Kurt Weill's Der Kuhhandel. Presented in translation as Arms and the Cow, and written while Weill was on the run from the Third Reich, it is a satire on little people and big guns that closed only two weeks after its 1935 London premiere. Mindful of its failure 70 years ago, Opera North has scheduled only 10 performances in the current tour - none of them in Belfast, where arms-dealing is perhaps less amusing a subject than it might be elsewhere.

Pountney's production, first seen in Bregenz, is superficially entertaining and superficially politicised. Though Weill was adamant that Der Kuhhandel was not analagous to the Third Reich, lederhosen, dirndl skirts, jackboots and jodphurs litter the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Maria like an all-singing, all-dancing version of Boys from Brazil: The Prequel.

Despite the Nazi imagery, which includes a half-swastika composed of a boot and a fist, the sad story of simple Juan (Leonardo Capalbo) and sweet Juanita (Mary Plazas), whose marriage is delayed by a military putsch, is here presented as a metaphor for Iraq. Wannabe-dictator General Conchas (Donald Maxwell) is therefore a harmless buffoon, while the true villain is, of course, the American arms-dealer Jones (Adrian Clarke).

As is always the case with Weill, there are some great tunes in Arms and the Cow. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them to reward the hours of dreary dialogue and political posturing. I've nothing against using musical comedy to explore fascism or the Military Industrial Complex, provided it is done with some seriousness. Conductor James Holmes draws a pleasingly smoky period sound from the orchestra, the dancers are indefatigable, and much of the singing is excellent, but I don't think Mel Brooks need lose any sleep. Best in show? The animatronic flies.

'La Belle Hélène', Coliseum, London to April 27, 0870 145 0200. 'Arms and the Cow', Theatre Royal, Nottingham, April 27, 0115 989 5555