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The New York Times – April 3, 1868



“La Belle Hélène” enters on its second week tonight, and of course with undiminished signs of success. The critics have expressed their opinions of the work, and with agreeable impartiality have praised it to the skies or condemned it to the bottomless pit. In a moral point of view there can be no doubt that Helen was an improper person, and although over a hundred years old at the time when her story is taken up in this piece, was still distractingly pretty, and therefore the cause of incalculable mischief. The Trojan war was entirely of her making and the result of a row among her sweethearts. It is the incidents leading to this calamity which furnish Mr. OFFENBACH with the materials for his opera. Society was in a loose condition. Helen was in a constant difficulties, and like a wanton school-boy, was forever running away. It was fatality. She acknowledged it frankly, and bolted with the next man. If we may believe Mr. OFFENBACH, Agamemnon was in the habit of winking at her – albeit, his own brother Menelaus was her lawful husband. The little affair with Theseus, too, was direputable. The whole family was, to speak mildy, eccentric. Helen’s brothers, the Dioscuri, were only virtuous when their own cakesand ale were in question. Pollux, when invited to Mount Olympus by Jupiter, said frankly that her preferred the other place because he thought he could find his brother there, and in due time, perhaps, his sister. Such agreeable candor is not experienced in this present day. Oreste seems to have partaken of the characteristics of modern Princess, and to have gone it while he was young in a way that must have astonished his governor. He wound up by murdering his own mother. The only respectable personages introduced by M. OFFENBACH are the soothsayer Calchas and the ardent Achalies, but is not possible to say a great deal even of these. There is no doubt that when Orestes brings two very pretty but imprudent women on the stage, Calchas looks after them with more eagerness that ought to by displayed by an august augur. He is so [mot illisible] fadeed of the solemnities of his situation, that he actually sings a comic song, and wishes he were a man of pleasure with a couple of pretty girles on this arm, and an attendance of “flutes and soft recorders.” Achilles is depicted by M. OFFENBACH as a shoulder-hitter, ready for a muss on the shortest possible notice, and quite indifferent as to the provocation of the indivudal.

The French are fond of treating such subjects. The “beautiful mythology” of Greece is an excellent butt for their wit and cynicism. Messrs., MEILHAC and HALEVY, the authors of the libretto of “La Belle Hélène,” have put not retraint on themselves. They lampoon the past at the expense of the present. Menelaus is perhaps not a flattering type of a French husband, but he is easily sent on a foolish errand or otherwise disposed of in favor of a third party, and is, therefore, a just object or riducule. The sarcasm is not very biting ; nor need it be. The object is fun ; to laugh ; not to sneer. It is more than probable that the authors had no impelling motives on the subject of public morality when they wrote the piece. Preaching is a little out of place at the Variétés Theatre, although it sometimes furnishes texts to Father Hyacinthe, and has certainly done so to one or two gentelman of the Press in this City. Nevertheless the saucy Helen is a winning, it a wicked heroine, and is by no means so loathsome in the play as in the legend. PLATO says that the Gods mad men for their sport. Messrs. MEILHAC and HALEVY have reversed this. The make the Gods for man’s sport, and such an odd set of divinities deserves to be laughed at.

The libretto is funnily written, but the action flags in the second act, especially in the ponderous game of Goose. The dialogue is still profuse, although it has been materialy shortened since the first night. There are puns in it of the most atrocious kind, some of which the liberal-minded translator has attempted to render into English. The result is not always convulsive. Here are one or two instances Agamemnon is announcing the contest between Kings, poets and sheperds says that the prize will be a wreath of pine leaves, adding “Pour des gens d’esprit – du pin, c’est bien assez.” This is rendered “for men of genius pine is good enough,” an utterly paralyzing literalness. The play is on the pronunciation of the words pin and pain – bread. The staff of [mot illisible] is not only sufficient for poets, but more than many of the honorable fraternity have sometimes been able to obtain. The linguist languishes when he comes to the awful conundrum solved by Paris – the difference between Calcas and a pickle. A pickle is “confits dans du vinagre ; Calchas est confident du Roi,” (the one is preserved in vinegar, the other is preserved by the King,) which he renders thus – taking refuge miserably in French. The one is : “Confits dans du vinaigre, Calchas is confidant of the King.” But the most curious of the valiant but unsuccessful efforts is where Calchas says to Helen, “Je vois venir la musique à pas de loup,” (I see the music of PASDELOUP coming,) which is translated : “The music is approaching with a wolf’s step.” PASDELOUP, we need scarcely remind our readers, is the most distinguished musical conductor in Paris, and hence this play on is name. The are dozens of other puns which, equally with those quoted, have eluded the vigilance of the translator. We refer to them simply as appropriate illustrations of the play, and as an indication of the severe state of mind in which the spectator should witness it. They serve also to explain why we think the dialogue too long. A pun is trying and vexations thing at the best of times, but a foreign language it becomes additionally aggravating. Let us add the the translation of “La belle Hélène” is generally clear and intelligible. Our language is too blunt, our mode of expression too solid to reflect all the playful nuances of the original, and we suspect that, owing to this cause, a vast amount of virtuous earnestness will be expended on trifles which roally have no damning import in French.

OFFENBACH’S music is in many respects the best he has ever written. There is not so much of it as in the “Grand Duchess” and other works, but the quality is firmer and the workmanship more conscientious. The ensembles are particularly well constructed. The themes are effective, yet of sufficient elasticity to admit occasional stretches and wrenches. The gay composer cannot be serious for the more than eight bars at a time. The vitality which pervades his music ; the alacrity with which he throws off the slightest impediment and takes to the tips of his toes, are the secrets of his success. Well-bred vivacity is always acceptable, and so far as music is concerned, OFFENBACH is always well-bred. The commonest little subject from hi pen is graceful and airy. He never forces hit talent beyond its proper limit, but leaves an agreable suggestion on the mind that he can still do better. That he possesses an unfailing source of sparkling melody can not be be disputed. It is usually of a quadrille or waltz character, but often takes a better shape, especially in those orchestral bits where the band sustains the melody whilst the actors pursue the business of the stage. There are several instances of the kind in “La Belle Hélène,” and we may add that the march is intrinsically good. For the rest it is a light, delicate, sensitive touch that quickens the story ; nervous in its rhythm and clear and certain in its purpose. The orchestral music is written for a small orchestra – smaller in Paris than here – and is unpretentous, but fluent and well colored. OFFENBACH is fond of ridiculing the pretensions of instrumentalists. Every one remembers the clarinet obbligato in the “Duchess” – an ingenious distortion peculiarly suited to the scene of the conspiracy, where everything is supposed to be out of joint. There is a similar exaggeration in “La Belle Hélène” satirising the music of Padeloup’s band, before alluded to.

There can be no doubt that this work depends very largely on the principal singer. In the respect it is not so desirable a managerial [mot illisible] as the one which preceded it. Any one could take the part of the Duchess, not so well as TOSTEE, to be sure, but sufficiently well to insure a laughable entertainment. It will be difficult, we are sure, for Mr. BATEMAN, with all this managerial tact, to find a successor the the lady we have named in the role of Hélène. She is thoroughly charming, not merely in the abandon of her style, but in the intellectual quickness with which she seizes the slightest allusions of the play. It is not often that such comic acting is seen on any stage. He jollity tends to extremes, like the mercury in a barometer, but it is always within bounds, and is the correct record of every momentary change. There is something in the snap of her fingers, the shrug of her shoulders, the play of her eyes, that even expresses more the words. Sometimes, too much, as in the last lines of the air, “Nous Naissons Toutes Soucieuses,” where, in addition to the members we have mentioned, the hips are employed for purposes of expression. he Cancan seems to be a part and parcel of Opera-Bouffe, but it might, we think, be occasionally dispersed whith. Mlle. TOSTEE’s voice is pleasant and sufficient. She uses it discreetly, and sings well. In every way she is an excellent Hélène, and gives a performance which is worthy of the best artistic consideration and study.

The Orestes of Mlle. DE FELCOURT, although somewhat ungainly, displayed the ladies’ voice to advantage, and, so far as clothes was concerned, was an unembarrassed effort. M. GUFFROY was the Paris. The music requires some slight attempt at singing, which the gentleman bestowed on it. A little more animation would not, we think, be out of place. Of the other characters, from Agamemnon to Eutycles, it is unnecessary to speak. The artists who sustain theme are all thoroughly goog, and entirely adequate to every requirement. The chorus is sufficient in numbers, and has been drilled efficiently. The scenery and dresses reflect the greatest credit on Mr. BATEMAN’s liberality and taste. From the first, indeed, the performances have been complete, and fully equal to those given of the same work in Paris.

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