Let Troy be unconfined

<i>La Belle Helene</i> | Barbican Hall, London
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Everybody knows an Offenbach tune, whether cancan or waltz. But we don't often see a full-length stage work, and when we do it's usually Orpheus in the Underworld and usually Gilbert-and-Sullivanised. Fair enough maybe, since without Offenbach's invention of the mockery-plus-romance model, G&S could never have happened.

Everybody knows an Offenbach tune, whether cancan or waltz. But we don't often see a full-length stage work, and when we do it's usually Orpheus in the Underworld and usually Gilbert-and-Sullivanised. Fair enough maybe, since without Offenbach's invention of the mockery-plus-romance model, G&S could never have happened.

But for the real thing, the fans have always had to go to Paris. So they were out in force when the Barbican brought Paris to London on Sunday, for one afternoon only.

They had plenty to cheer about. This production of La Belle Hélÿne has been packing the Châtelet theatre for a month. Within the first few seconds of the Barbican's concert version they knew why. There's no great secret to Parisian ways with Offenbach: energy, energy and energy. And style. And precision, and pace.

All of this was writ large on Marc Minkowski's conducting of the overture with Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, best known for playing early music on period instruments, but here a 40-strong band, only with 10 times the virtuosity, plus the vivid woodwind and brass colours and the way with melodies unique to top-quality French ensembles. A living rebuff to anybody who thinks orchestral sounds are getting blandly internationalised.

La Belle Hélÿne is a favourite among the fans, and in some ways Offenbach's most perfect work. The speed and wit are brilliant, yet there is space for half a dozen big tunes and extended episodes of genuine feeling. Ridiculous farce and seductive charm hold a fine balance. This cartoon Helen of Troy veers, without ever losing its poise, from intimate character-study to political satire to musical lampoon.

At the heart is a role written for the formidable Hortense Schneider, the inspiration behind a series of Offenbach grandes dames. Here, Dame Felicity Lott, no less, was Helen. Nobody does appetite better. But she can do French, too, singing with elegance and passion, and delivering her lines with a mix of the knowing and the susceptible that gave depth to the humour.

The only other international big name was François Le Roux, enjoying himself mightily as the high priest Calchas. But the cast had been well picked. Yann Beuron's tenor had the right range and flexibility for Paris; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Menelaus proved himself fit for joining the succession of French character tenors; and Marie-Ange Todorovitch made a flamboyant Orestes in drag.

Best of all, the whole company gelled together with real relish and could put on unbelievable turns of speed in the scampering finales. This must have been the best Offenbach anywhere since the old Opéra Comique's famous triple bill two decades ago. The art lives on.

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