La belle Hélène

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La belle Hélène (French pronunciation: ​[la bɛl elɛn], The Beautiful Helen), is an opéra bouffe in three acts by Jacques Offenbach to an original French libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The operetta parodies the story of Helen's elopement with Paris, which set off the Trojan War.

Performance history[edit]

It was first performed at Paris's Théâtre des Variétés on December 17, 1864, starring Hortense Schneider and José Dupuis. While some experts (cf Grove) are of the opinion that the creation of La belle Hélène was a "largely untroubled" affair, others (cf Jacob) paint a different picture: Although Offenbach had managed at great cost to persuade Schneider, known by then as "La Snédèr", to accept the role of Helen, the premiere remained in doubt to the very last minute. During rehearsals, La Snédèr constantly complained that the extravagant Léa Silly (in a male role as Oreste) was trying to upstage her: La Silly extemporized (a privilege reserved for the prima donna); she imitated her; she danced a cancan in her back while she was singing an important aria, etc. etc. La Snédèr not only walked off the set repeatedly, but kept threatening to leave the world, or at least Paris, altogether! It took all of Offenbach's skills at creating harmony to see the production through.

La belle Hélène was an instant success with both the public and the critics and enjoyed an initial run of 700 performances. Premieres in Vienna (1865), Berlin (1865), London (Adelphi Theatre, June 30th, 1866)[1], Edinburg (King's Theatre, 3 April 1965) and Glasgow (Theatre Royal)[2], and Chicago (1867) followed shortly. It also had a run in New York City, at the Pike's Opera House, beginning on November 2nd, 1868, and then on the Grand Opera House beginning on April 13, 1871.[3] It had its Czech premiere in Prague in 1875, under Adolf Čech.[4]


Paris and Helen from a production of La belle Hélène at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre.
Role Voice type Premiere cast,
December 17, 1864,
(Conductor: Jacques Offenbach)
Agamemnon, King of Kings baritone Henri Couder
Ménélas, King of Sparta tenor Jean-Laurent Kopp
Pâris, son of King Priam of Troy tenor José Dupuis
Calchas, high priest of Jupiter bass Pierre-Eugène Grenier
Achille, King of Phthiotis tenor Alexandre Guyon
Oreste, son of Agamemnon soprano or tenor Léa Silly
Ajax I, King of Salamis tenor Edouard Hamburger
Second Ajax, King of the Locrians baritone M. Andof
Philocome, Calchas' attendant spoken M. Videix
Euthyclès, a blacksmith spoken M. Royer
Hélène, Queen of Sparta mezzo-soprano Hortense Schneider
Parthénis, a courtesan soprano Mlle. Alice
Lœna, a courtesan mezzo-soprano Mlle. Gabrielle
Bacchis, Helen's attendant soprano Mlle. C. Renault
Ladies and Gentlemen, Princes, Guards, People, Slaves, Helen’s servants, Mourners of Adonis


Place: Sparta and the shores of the sea
Time: Before the Trojan War.

Act 1[edit]

Paris, son of Priam, arrives with a missive from the goddess Venus to the high priest Calchas, commanding him to procure for Paris the love of Helen, promised him by Venus when he awarded the prize of beauty to her and refused it to Juno and Minerva.

Paris disguises himself as a shepherd and wins three prizes at a "contest of wit" (outrageously silly wordgames) with the Greek kings under the direction of Agamemnon, whereupon he reveals his identity. Helen, who was trying to settle after her youthful adventure and aware of Paris's backstory, decides that fate has sealed her fate. The Trojan prince is crowned victor by Helen, to the disgust of the lout Achilles and the two bumbling Ajaxes. Paris is invited to a banquet by Helen's husband, the king of Sparta Menelaus. Paris has bribed Calchas to "prophesise" that Menelaus must at once proceed to Crete, which he agrees to reluctantly under general pressure.

Act 2[edit]

While the Greek kings party in Menelaus's palace in his absence, and Calchas is caught cheating at a board game, Paris comes to Helen at night. After she sees off his first straightforward attempt at seducing her, he returns when she has fallen asleep. Helen has prayed for some appeasing dreams and appears to believe that this is one, and so resists him not much longer. Menelaus unexpectedly returns and finds the two in each other's arms. Helen, exclaiming 'la fatalité, la fatalité', tells him that it is all his fault: A good husband knows when to come and when to stay away. Paris tries to dissuade him from kicking up a row, but to no avail. When all the kings join the scene, berating him and telling him to go back where he came from, Paris departs, vowing to return and finish the job.

Act 3[edit]

The kings and their entourage have moved to Nauplia for the summer season, and Helen is sulking and protesting her innocence. Venus has retaliated for the treatment meted out to her protégé Paris by making the whole population giddy and amorous, to the despair of the kings. A high priest of Venus arrives on a boat, explaining that he has to take Helen to Cythera where she is to sacrifice 100 heifers for her offences. Menelaus pleads with her to go with the priest, but she refuses, saying that it is he, and not she, who has offended the goddess. But when she realises that the priest is Paris in disguise, she goes on board with him, and they sail away together.

In popular culture[edit]

Dessert Poire belle Hélène was named after operetta.

The section "La Galere de Cytherela" appears in the movie, Chasing Liberty. It appears when the two main characters are watching a film of a production of it in Prague, Czech Republic.

Noted arias[edit]

  • 'Amours divins' (Helen)
  • 'Au mont Ida' (Paris)


See also[edit]




  • Delamarche, Claire ed., L'Opéra pour les Nuls, Paris:Éditions Générales First, 2006
  • Holden, Amanda ed., The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, London: Penguin Books, 2005
  • Jacob, Walter ed., La opera, Claridad, Buenos Aires 1944
  • Jambou, Louis ed., Dictionnaire chronologique de l'Opéra de 1597 à nos jours, 1994, Le Livre de Poche 7861
  • Melnitz, Leo ed., The Opera Goer's Complete Guide, 1921
  • Sadie, Stanley ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, London 1992

External links[edit]