LA BELLE HÉLÈNE at Blackheath Halls
Get it wrong and comic opera can be a disaster. But get it right, like this year’s sold-out Blackheath Halls opera La Belle Hélène, and it’s a joy.
Offenbach’s musical parody of the Helen of Troy story is full of rollicking tunes and wonderfully daft jokes and plot-twists and it is to director James Hurley’s eternal credit that he embraces the silliness by slipping in lots of anachronistic detail such as virtual reality headsets and gags about modern British life.
The time-shifting is echoed in April Dalton’s fine set, particularly for the third act beach scene on the eve of the Trojan War featuring buckets and spades, deckchairs and even an inflatable palm.
But it’s the performances of the production’s professionals and amateurs that make this staging such a pleasure.
Soprano Ellie Laugharne is perfectly cast as Helen, combining virtuosic singing with a real gift for comedy, particularly in her passion for shepherds. And tenor Oliver Johnston throws himself into the role of seducer Paris with infectious relish, revelling in the dottiness while singing beautifully.
Ben McAteer as high priest Calchas, Joseph Shovelton as Menelaus and Nicholas Merryweather as Agamemnon are equally accomplished as musical comedians, as are Trinity Laban singers Rachel Maby (wearing the finest pair of flares I’ve seen since 1969], Megan Linnell, Shana Moron-Caravel, Gemma Wahl, Lars Fischer in a fantastically awful six-pack body-suit and, as the absurd Ajax brothers, Alexander White and Michael Collins.
This being a community opera, the professionals are backed by a scores of local people as well as children from two local primary schools, Charlton Park Academy and Greenvale. Their exuberance and delight makes a great evening even greater.
And let’s not forget the 42-piece orchestra conducted by Christopher Stark – their playing is faultless, even when Menelaus dashes to the rostrum and nicks Stark’s baton during one of the choruses.
This is a remarkable production, mixing artistry, humour and sheer joie de vivre in equal measure. And it underscores a simple truth: the annual Blackheath Halls Opera is one of the unmissable highlights of the musical calendar.