The beautiful Helena

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Work data
Title: The beautiful Helena
Original title: La Belle Hélène
Shape: opéra-bouffe
Original language: French
Music: Jacques Offenbach
Libretto : Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Premiere: December 17, 1864
Place of premiere: Paris
Playing time: approx. 2½ hours
Place and time of the action: Sparta and Nauplia (ancient Greece)
  • Helena, wife of Menelaus (high soprano )
  • Paris, son of King Priam (high tenor )
  • Menelaus, King of Sparta ( Tenorbuffo )
  • Kalchas, Grand Augur of the god Jupiter ( Bass )
  • Orestes, son of Agamemnon ( old )
  • King Agamemnon ( baritone )
  • Pylades, friend of Orestes ( mezzo-soprano )
  • King Achilles (tenor)
  • King Ajax I (tenor)
  • King Ajax II (tenor)
  • Bacchis, Helena's confidante (mezzo-soprano)
  • Leaena, Parthenis and Thetis (sopranos)
  • Philocomus, temple servant (actor)
  • Euthycles, locksmith (actor)
  • People, servants, guards, slaves ( chorus )
  • Dancers (ballet)

The beautiful Helena ( French La Belle Hélène ) is an opéra-bouffe or a buffo opera in three acts by Jacques Offenbach and the librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy . The world premiere took place on December 17, 1864 at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris. Offenbach was able to build on the success of his Opéra-bouffe Orpheus in der Unterwelt (1858), which also satirized a subject of classical antiquity. In contrast to Orpheus , however, the success of the Schöne Helena stands and falls with the female title role, portrayed in the world premiere by Hortense Schneider , at the Vienna premiere of Marie Geistinger . Famous other interpreters were u. a. Emily Soldene in the Anglo-American area.

Performance history

Hortense Schneider (1833-1920) was the celebrated singer and courtesan, for whose special talents Offenbach designed La belle Hélène and later also other operettas such as Barbe-bleue 1866, La Grande-Duchesse (de Gerolstein) 1867, La Périchole 1868 and La Diva 1869. Schneider was more distinguished by her enormous stage presence and erotic charms than by classical singing skills. The novelist Emile Zola portrays her - ironically pointed - in Nana (1880) as an actress without special talents who, thanks to her physical charm, manages to cast a spell over the Parisian public with naked appearances.

The audience of the Offenbach operettas was - as u. a. Kracauer in Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of his time writes - from the highest aristocratic circles and the demi-world. In the audience one found bankers, writers, diplomats, courtesans but also imperial dignitaries who had a great need for amusement (both intellectually and sexually) and clearly looser moral concepts than the bourgeoisie.

Offenbach and his librettists make fun of the middle class, the nouveau riche, upstarts and their conservative moral concepts in the so-called “Offenbachiads”; not, as is often wrongly assumed, about the rulers as a whole, in the sense of Brecht's class-struggle theater. It was a top-down laugh, not a bottom-up protest. Thus, the figure of the Sparta Queen Helena - the "most beautiful woman in the ancient world" - cannot be seen as an image of Empress Eugénie, as is sometimes claimed.

Based on the diaries of the librettist Halévy it can be established that as a civil servant he had an ambivalent attitude towards the Napoleon III regime, but there are no indications of undermining against Napoleon III . to find. One looks in vain for clues for the decline of customs and criticism of the Second Empire in the diaries. What one can safely deduce from them is that the operetta actively participates in the polemics against the false moralists (those who saw the state power as the highest authority and guardian of morality, in the embodiment of the emperor, who was known for his half-worldly escapades) would have.

Hans Jörg Neuschäfer explains in his article “The parody of myths in La Belle Hélène” in Jacques Offenbach and his time , how Offenbach plays with the aspect of the joke, but preserves the myth of the Helena saga. He justifies his statement with two principles, which for him show above all the aspect of the burlesque (the joking). For him, one principle is that the ancient settings of the operetta are connected to the present. Sparta becomes Paris and Nauplia becomes the glamorous seaside resort of Trouville . Thus, the plot of Belle Hélène comes within reach of the Paris audience of the 1860s. The second principle is the reduction of the excess of moral and physical strength, or the lowering of the heroism of the ancient legends to the mediocre human weakness in order to achieve a comical effect (the heroes of the story are all portrayed as ridiculous kings and warriors).

Offenbach and the moral theater

Offenbach's operettas are both indirectly and directly linked to the development of moral theater. Indirectly, as they share the great controversy with spoken theater that dominated the feature pages of the 1850s . Directly by taking up motifs and themes from moral theater. The role of money and the role of marriage in society are the central themes that Offenbach has taken from moral theater.

The beautiful Helena gained her provocative effect not only from the fact that many historical actresses were seen naked or almost naked in the play, but also from the treatment of the subject of adultery, which Helena calls fateful and inevitable. This was seen from various quarters as an advocacy of the reintroduction of divorce, says Ralph-Günther Patocka in his book Operetta als Moraltheater, Jacques Offenbach Libretti between moral school and moral corruption .

Nudity in the operetta

Helena, the “most beautiful woman in the world”, longs for a change from her everyday marriage and knows that the goddess Venus promised Prince Paris the love of the most beautiful woman on earth, Helena. She is eagerly awaiting Paris, who approaches her disguised as a shepherd. In the second act, Paris appears in Helena's bedroom. Believing that all of this is just a dream - in which everything is allowed - she surrenders to Paris in a wild love scene. This night scene with the erotically charged dream duet "Ce n'est qu'un rêve" heated the minds of the moralists, as the actress Helena stood naked on the stage at the premiere and later at the Vienna premiere. In an entry in the Munich police files, in connection with a performance in Bavaria, it says: “In all of this, it deserves recognition that the management of the theater [in Munich, note] clearly endeavored to make the play as discreet as possible. The costumes by no means revealed the nakedness as is the case in Paris at the Vaudevilletheater or in Vienna at the Carltheater. In Paris a. Vienna undressed Helena almost completely on stage in the night scene of Act II. "

In the biographies of singers and dancers of the era, the frequent connections to certain lodge visitors are striking. From this it can be concluded that the theaters, where frivolous, lascivious and sexually played things were shown, were also used as noble brothels and the singers, choristers and dancers acted as noble prostitutes. This will u. a. detailed by Zola in Nana , where the director of the Vaudeville Theater repeatedly speaks of his house as a “brothel”.

The Greeks often depicted their gods with blonde hair. So it is not surprising that Helena is also portrayed with blonde hair in the operetta. However, if you look at the portrayal of Helena as a “blonde” with the background knowledge that in the 1860s dyed blonde hair was viewed as “barbaric” among women of the middle class and as a distinguishing mark of prostitutes, Offenbach's Helena appears in a different light. In her aria, she sings provocatively alluding to this direction: "On me nomme Hélène la blonde". Of course, the title character Nana in Zola's novel is also blonde and a celebrated courtesan.

In the operetta genre that Offenbach cultivated, many exaggerations of all kinds and very permissive allusions of eroticism could be brought onto the stage under the guise of parody and grotesque, which under realistic or normal circumstances could never be brought about by the censorship on a public stage in Paris would have been allowed.

Contemporary witness Bertha Glöckner comments on Marie Geistinger's depiction of Helena in Vienna : “Today I can still see this Helena in front of me, in her transparent tarlatan robes, I see her junonic figure, her classic legs, her attractive profile with the slightly ironic smile around her Corner of the mouth. When she greeted Paris at the first encounter with her own sweeping hand gesture and then lorgnetted when she threw off her tunic in the dream scene ... that was a picture of inimitable grace. "

Given the slippery subject of adultery and the “nudity that flourishes in various senses” in the play, it is not surprising that Prince Metternich, who was present at the Paris premiere, is said to have said to his wife when leaving the theater:

“We were wrong to attend the premiere. […] Our name will appear in all the newspapers, and it is not pleasant for a woman to have been officially in such a play, so to speak. "


place and time

The operetta is set in mythological Greece (Sparta and Nauplia) shortly before the beginning of the Trojan War, mixed with elements of the present at the time of the premiere.

first act

Image: Temple Square in Sparta

Helena, the wife of King Menelaus, is said to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and she believes that of herself too. Because her somewhat silly husband is very old, he can no longer satisfy his wife. Helena therefore asks Venus, the goddess of love, to finally send her a real lover again. She thinks of the shepherd to whom Venus once promised the most beautiful woman in the world on Mount Ida. Menelaus also heard of this story and since then has been very worried about the loyalty of his beautiful wife.

A spiritual competition is currently taking place in Sparta. One of the participants is Prince Paris from Troy, who - disguised as a shepherd - has mingled with the participants. Because he knows the right answer to every question, he soon aroused Helena's interest. Paris quickly realizes that the Grand Augur Kalchas is primarily concerned with his own gain, and bribes him so that he can ensure favorable circumstances in his wooing Helena. Kalchas announced to the people that the gods had ordered Menelaus to go to Crete. With a heavy heart he starts the journey.

Second act

Image: Room of Helena

Kalchas has promised Helena a wonderful dream for the coming night. When the beautiful woman saw Paris in her room, she believed that the dream would now come true. Both spend an exuberant night of love and satisfy their desires. But what they didn't expect: Menelaus returns from his trip earlier than expected. He catches his wife cheating and wants to arrest the rival. But before his captors manage to seize him, he manages to escape.

Third act

Image: Beach promenade in Nauplia

Everything that has rank and name in Greece is recovering in Nauplia. King Menelaus and his wife are currently honoring this seaside resort. In his desperation Menelaus had sent a petition to the Grand Augur of the goddess Venus by post so that the question of guilt could finally be clarified. His wife stubbornly insists that she got into the "emergency" through no fault of her own. In reply he received that he and his wife should go to Nauplia, then his eyes would be opened. It doesn't take long either, when the white-haired and awesome Großaugur actually approaches with a ship. When he asks Helena to come with him to Cythere to sacrifice a hundred white sheep in the temple, it is Menelaus who asks his wife to board the ship immediately and obey the order. It doesn't take long before he realizes he's been tricked. As soon as the ship is a few meters from the beach, the Grand Augur reveals himself as Prince Paris, who kidnaps the beautiful Helena. And this kidnapping - as we now know - was the cause of the start of the Trojan War!

German processing

Marie Geistinger

The German-language premiere took place three months after the premiere on March 17, 1865 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien . Marie Geistinger took on the role of Helena . This first performance was staged by the then director of the theater, Friedrich Strampfer . Camillo Walzel (pseudonym F. Zell ) and Julius Hopp translated the French libretto into German. In the first nine months of the season, the play had 65 performances, despite an opposition made up of art experts and journalists who opposed the portrayal of antiquity. Marie Geistinger played Helena in up to 200 performances until the end of 1875. Offenbach himself said, delighted about Geistinger after the Vienna premiere: "Voilà la belle Hélène de mes rêves!"

Cast of the German-language premiere in Vienna

role Singer
Helena Marie Geistinger
Paris Albin Swoboda
Menelaus Karl Blasel
Agamemnon Carl Adolf Friese
Calchas Matthias Rott
Achilles Mr. Hunter
Orestes Miss Beyer

Receptions for the Vienna premiere

“(Theater an der Wien) Yesterday Offenbach's […] much-mentioned“ beautiful Helena ”came to the first performance […] under the composer's personal direction. Ms. Geistinger was excellent as Helena [...] "

“The music is inferior to that of Orpheus in terms of comic content and satyrical spice, but it contains numerous beauties that are characterized by real invention, melodic charm, graceful workmanship and piquant instrumentation. […] The presentation, which in all parts was to be called a highly successful one, has contributed much to the success. The lion's share of this goes to Fr. Geistinger, an artist in the best sense of the word. [...] She plays with confidence and calm, and has such an appreciable amount of means of expression that belong to the determination of a character and its stylish treatment. "

But one also reads of Marie Geistinger as a “highly experienced actress” who is a “tolerable singer” but who is able to “carry a piece”. Regarding the staging, it was noted that “individual women” had attracted attention with their “impeccable physique” and had made a name for themselves in a play that was full of “crude [r] ambiguities” and even “in various senses flourishing nudity” - the audience was supposedly "bored" anyway.

German revision

The beautiful Helena was also reworked by director Max Reinhardt and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold . It was not the first time they worked together for a new operetta (this was preceded by the successful adaptation of the Fledermaus by Johann Strauss in 1929. ) Reinhardt had the Helena libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy radically reworked by Egon Friedell and Hanns Sassmann . Reinhardt resolved the classic structure of three acts into a revue of seven individual images. This version was performed for the first time in Berlin on June 15, 1931. Jarmila Novotná took over the role of Helena , who later sang the title role in Lehárs Giuditta's premiere at the Vienna State Opera. Menelaus embodied Hans Moser . The trouser role of Orestes was played by Friedel Schuster . This role should be the beginning of a great operetta career for her. Korngold's musical arrangement was well received, although he took much of the elemental effect of the work, as he made the operetta sweeter with the Viennese waltz operetta style. Several stages in Europe played this version, including the Adelphi Theater in London in 1932. During their emigration, Korngold and Reinhardt brought their arrangement of the beautiful Helena back to the stage in New Yorker in 1944 under the title Helen Goes To Troy .

Another revision as "Operetta for Actors" by Peter Hacks premiered in 1964 in a production by Benno Besson at the Deutsches Theater Berlin .

Performed in other countries

The beautiful Helena was successfully brought to the stage in other countries.

country Theater, title, performance language date
Germany Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater , Berlin: The beautiful Helena May 13, 1865
Great Britain Adelphi Theater: Helen , or Taken from the Greek June 30, 1866
Hungary Cash desk: Szép Heléna March 7, 1866
Budai Színkör (in German) May 6, 1866
Várszínház: Szép Heléna April 30, 1870
Russia Michailowsky Theater , St. Petersburg April 9, 1866
United States City Theater, New York (in German): The beautiful Helena December 3, 1867
National Theater, Cincinnati (French) April 6, 1868
Théâtre Français (French) March 26, 1868
New York Theater (English): Paris and Helen , or the Greek Elopement April 13, 1868
Australia Royal Victoria Theater, Sydney May 31, 1876


Original version: two flutes (2nd also piccolo), an oboe, two clarinets, a bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, a trombone, timpani, percussion and strings.

Viennese arrangement: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a bass tuba, large percussion and strings Vienna arrangement or Viennese version means that Offenbach himself made changes and expansions in the orchestra. For a long time, it was unfortunately regrettable that the Viennese versions were recorded as having a German rather than a Parisian musical spirit in the work. Since many conductors equated clumsiness with instrumental wealth, the Viennese versions were for a long time, wrongly, decried as too massive.


Offenbach has scattered a wealth of catchy melodies over his work. The music bubbles almost lively. In addition to the famous overture, which can often be heard separately from the actual work in the concert hall and on the radio, the following vocal numbers deserve special mention:

  • the performance song of Paris On Mount Ida, three goddesses argued with the refrain Evoe - to please a handsome young man in waltz time,
  • Am Menelaus, the good one ,
  • I am the first Ajax ,
  • the great duet between Helena and Paris It's a dream, it's a dream of love and heavenly delight ,
  • True lust and joy and
  • Oh, dear man, let me teach you .

Complete recordings (selection)

Complete recordings are available in French, German and Russian. Cross-sections also exist in English, Polish and Czech.

  • La Belle Hélène , Linda, Dran, Giraud, Lonsolas, Chorus & Orchestra Paris Philharmonic under René Leibowitz, Regis 1952
  • Moffo , Kollo , Rebroff Südfunkchor and Stuttgart Radio Orchestra under Franz Aller's TV film 1975 (incl. Publication by Phonogram)
  • La Belle Hélène , Norman, Aler, Burles, Bacquier, Choeur et Orchester du Capitol de Toulouse under Michel Plasson EMI 1985
  • La Belle Hélène , Lott, Beuron, Sénéchal, Naouri, Le Roux, Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre, Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble under Marc Minkowski , Virgin 2001
  • La Belle Hélène , Vesselina Kasarova , Deon van der Walt, Carlos Chausson, Volker Vogel, choir and orchestra of the Zurich Opera House under Nikolaus Harnoncourt DVD Arthaus Musik 1997


  • La Belle Hélène , Lott, Beuron, Sénéchal, Naouri, Le Roux, Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre, Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble under Marc Minkowski , directed by Laurent Pelly , Arthaus Musik 2001
  • La Belle Hélène , Kasarova, van der Walt, Chausson, Vogel, Widmer, choir and orchestra of the Zurich Opera House under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, directed by Helmuth Lohner , recording 1997, Arthaus Musik 2011

TV movie versions

  • The beautiful Helena , Moffo, Kollo, Rebroff, Meinrad, Schleyer, Serafin, Südfunkchor and Radio Orchestra Stuttgart under Franz Allers, screenplay Gerhard Bronner, direction Axel von Ambesser , Unitel Film- und Fernsehproduktionsgesellschaft (Unterföhring), 1975 (including a cross-section published by AMIGA , 1983)

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Information in the piano reduction of Edition Bote & Bock, German translation by E. Dohm
  2. a b c d Kevin Clarke: The birth of the operetta from the spirit of pornography: defining features of a modern music theater genre . In: Marie-Theres Arnbom , Kevin Clarke , Thomas Trabitsch (Ed.): World of Operetta. Glamor, stars and show business . Brandstätter Verlag, Vienna 2011.
  3. Projekt Gutenberg-DE
  4. ^ Siegfried Kracauer : Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of his time . Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1976, p. 265.
  5. a b c d Ralph-Günther Patocka: Operetta as moral theater, Jacques Offenbach libretti between moral school and moral corruption . Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2002.
  6. Hans Jörg Neuschäfer: The parody of myths in La Belle Hélène . In: Elisabeth Schmierer (Ed.): Jacques Offenbach and his time . Laaber 2009.
  7. ^ Siegfried Kracauer : Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of his time . Allert de Lange, Amsterdam 1937, p. 323.
  8. Files of the police headquarters from August 19, 1867
  9. ^ Robert C. Allen: Horrible Prettiness burlesque and American culture . Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  10. Bertha Glöckner, quoted in. in Emil Pirchan, Marie Geistinger: The Queen of the Operetta , Vienna 1947.
  11. a b c Wiener Zeitung , March 18, 1865
  12. Quoted from Kracauer, 1994.
  13. a b c Kurt Gänzl : La belle Hélène . In: Encyclopedia of the musical theater , 2nd edition.
  14. Quoted from Emil Pirchan, Marie Geistinger: The Queen of the Operetta , Vienna 1947.
  15. ^ The Debate , March 18, 1865
  16. ^ Sheets for Theater, Music and Art , March 21, 1865
  17. a b c Kevin Clarke: “The waltz awakens - the negroes escape”, Erich Wolfgang Korngold operettas (adaptations) from One Night in Venice 1923 to the Silent Serenade 1954 . In: FZMw , Vol. 12, 2009, pp. 16–95.
  18. 2014
  19. Bernd O. Rachold (2007, updated December 5, 2013).
  20. Jean-Christophe Keck .
  21. La belle Hélène in the Internet Movie Database (English)