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The Sun – November 3, 1868

La Belle Helene.

The reproduction of so popular a work as “La Belle Hélène” attracted, as might be expected, a very large audience at Pike’s Opera House. So much honest indignation has already been expended upon the atheistical works of Offenbach and hit librettists, that it seems needless to inveigh longer against their tendencies, and we suppose that, like model artists, nude ballets, and hoop skirts, they will have their day and we will return to better things, in spite of managers, if not by their assistance. Epochs of coarseness come and go without our special wonder. The growth of lewdness and its decay in the direction of Puritanism might be milked by historians as resultling from bad government or bad fashions. Paris, for three centuries, possessing both these motors, has provided the rest of the world in all seriousness with a steady stream of God-forsaken literature and art which has required the earnest efforts of decent critics to stem.

It is to be lauded that the clever libretti of Offenbach’s co-workers have been set to music which will not live. If Donizetti had consented to write such a burlesque, and his genius had been lent to perpetuate such grossness, how much less promise of reform could be obtained. Offenbach’s success is found in a keen appreciation of what is pretty and what is grotesque in musical form, not allowing his fancy to be hampered by any considerations of his original proprietorship in his musical Ideas. Never meaning to be serious, he uses the slower times for special musical monkeyisms, and puts to the basest uses the transcendental chords that in other dispositions would be sublime. In the spirited air, in two-four time, “Voici les rois de la Grèce,” there occurs in the four opening bars a startling violation of all precedent notions or musical proprieties, and it is a specimen brick of our composer’s lyrical structure, for which, as the inventor, he deserves full credit. To describe it, is difficult. It is a trick upon the car, and a brave use of dissonant chords used in melodic succession, and specially accented so as to make their nature plainer. There are able writers who deny this composer’s talent, and say Offenbach is ignorant. We cannot find this in any of the three or four opera that have been produced here. The variety and contrast which are necessary to interest the hearer, added to a keen knowledge of stage business, are nowhere wanting, while the musical changes are natural to the plot and situation. These operas were designed for one of the smallest theatres in Paris, where every chair occupied by an orchestra player was a visible encroachment on the auditorium. Hence the instrumental department craves Indulgence, and calls off very little attention from the scene. In a box of a theatre like the Bouffes Parisiennes [1], a broad joke or a bit of impropriety may be chuckled over in a cosy manner by an audience, pretty much as a party in a corner may hear a questionable conundrum, and fancy the rest of the wide world is not much injured thereby. But it is not so here. A vast theatre of the dimensions of Pike’s or Niblo’s enlarges the opera bouffe to very different proportions, and what was a little quiet naughtiness becomes positive indecency, and all the harder to tolerate in this era of vocal decay, and, as a substitute for the Italian opera, utterly deplorable,

Having said this much about the libretto, let us return to the performance of last evening, wherein there was everything to commend in the production of the opera. In addition to Tostée, Lambéle, and the comic trio who made the fortune of “La Grande Duchesse,” there were two first appearances : Mr. Houdin, who is a low comic of an original and exceedingly funny kind, and Mr. Decré, a tenor of fair voice and an agreeable singer, who took the part of Paris. Mlle. Tostée sang with more voice than usual, and made the classic Helen supremely ridiculous by her rakish offers at the cancan, the absence of which breakdown it keenly felt in this opera because it occurs in the other works of Offenbach. The scenery and dresses were very fresh and attractive, and in all the details of stage business there was a care and attention that was commendable. The opera will be repeated.


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