OPERA La Belle Helene

Nice cast, shame about the staging, says Raymond Monelle of Scottish Opera's latest
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It was odd that the short biography of Anne Howells in Scottish Opera's programme didn't mention her success as Offenbach's Helen with English National Opera in 1975. She is still quite acceptable, after 20 years, as the most beautiful woman in the world, and of course she sails through this part with huge bravura, even though she has had to learn a new and witty translation by John Wells. Howells's abundant presence was not enough, however, to carry a production that was in every respect provincial and musically wooden.

Scottish Opera has recently been plunged into crisis, and its decision to change to a part-time basis (the alternative was to sack the orchestra) has seemed to some to suggest over-reaction and pique. It would be splendid - probably every critic felt - to be able to proclaim that the company's work is still triumphantly international, despite all its troubles. This season, it has not given cause for such enthusiasm; one constantly leaves the theatre filled with regret and frustration.

For its new La Belle Helene the company has brought in two French directors, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, a French conductor, Emmanuel Joel, and a French set designer, Christian Ratz. This ought to have guaranteed a real sharpness of wit and a knowing instinct for tempo. But no, the piece was sunk without trace in clowning and buffoonery, most of it lamentably unfunny. Each set was cluttered with furniture (bar the last-act seaside scene, where things began to improve), making it impossible for the chorus to dance as well as sing (Offenbach's numbers are, of course, mostly song- and-dance routines) and forcing them to resort to mere jigging about and hand-waving.

Wells had translated all of the original text, apparently, including the tedious game of Goose in Act 2, and the whole thing ran for an interminable three-and-a-half hours. It would have been bearable if only the music, with its sly speed-shifts that are scrupulously marked in the score, had been given just a touch of elastic, the relations of tempo grasped with just a grain of intelligence. The orchestra sounded distinctly unhappy. Perhaps they were preoccupied about job security.

The cast were excellent (though wasted on a half-baked production). Jonathan Veira was a hilarious Calchas, Tracey Welborn a lyric and credible Paris, John Mitchinson a suitably bumbling Menelaus and Gordon Wilson a yokel of an Achilles. Andrew Slater was a noisy and bombastic Agamemnon, and the two Ajaxes (James Drummond Nelson and Garry Magee) were a pair of public-school clots. Vocally, all were impressive.

Top marks, then, to the mainly British cast, especially the gorgeous leading lady; black marks to the mainly French high command. It seems a paradoxical verdict for a piece as quintessentially French as this.

In rep to Sat, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141-332 9000); then touring