Proprietor / Lessee:
H. L. [impressario] Bateman
Manager / Director:
H. L. [impressario] Bateman
17 August 2017
“Offenbach decidedly brings good fortune to M. Bateman, and you must acknowledge that the American impresario neglects nothing so that the works of the maestro from Cologne should be worthily rendered. We wouldn’t know at this hour how to dwell on yesterday evening’s performance: we’ll only say that it was the occasion for a new triumph for the director and the artists. In the first rank one must put Mlle Tostée: impossible to have more liveliness, imagination and dash. MM. Lagriffoul, Duchesne, Leduc, Guffroy, Mlle de Felcourt were equally well rewarded by the audience. The chorus and orchestra were perfect. The costumes are completely magnificent. They [alone] will be enough to attract the public for six months. It’s a dazzling, unrestrained luxury.
We’ll give more details tomorrow; we ought to limit ourselves at this moment to a simple estimate at first sight. The Belle-Hélène is going to become the Spring sensation, as the Grande-Duchesse was that of Autumn and Winter. After tomorrow every piano will resound with motifs from the Belle-Hélène, and they’ll dance only quadrilles taken from that score.
[Even] Those most armored with Puritan severity and fierce virtue had to unbend before this parody of Olympus. After all, should one be astonished that Helen, as she herself says, “being the daughter of a Swan, should have become a floozy?” All of that is perfectly innocent, and in order to call names at it, you have to bring to the theater the depravities of your own imagination, and substitute them for the real intentions of the authors.
Until tomorrow for a complete accounting. The character of the work, which is a sign of the times, the excellence of the production, the enormous expenses that the administration has incurred, the success of the performance that we left, merit more than a simple mention.”
“Last night the long-expected ‘La Belle Hélène was brought out at the French Theatre. A year ago the announcement of the production of one of Offenbach’s operas would not have excited much curiosity. Since then, through the entrerprise of Mr. Bateman, the ‘Grand Duchess’ has been so handsomely presented, both dramatically and musically, that the opera bouffe has become almost naturalized here, with what advantage to public morals we will not now discuss. We were not surprised, therefore, to see that the successor of the ‘Grand Duchess’ attracted last night an audience as large as could well be packed into the French Theatre.
‘La Belle Hélène,’ although here the successor of the ‘Grand Duchess,’ is an earlier composition and of a different character. If the latter is one of the best specimens of the opera bouffe the former is throughout a burlesque of the broadest and most elaborate character. The ‘moral’ of the ‘Grand Duchesse,’ so far as it can be said to have any, is that young fellows in humble positions should not give way to the gallantries pressed on them by ladies of high rank, but stick to their true and humble sweethearts. The immorality of the libretto are incidental, while its wit is directed mainly at legitimate objects. ‘La Belle Hélène’ consistently ridicules the stupidity of husbands in attempting to prevent their wives from having love affairs with handsome young adventurers.
The story is the old mythological one about the loves of Paris and Helen, masqueraded in such a burlesque as only Parisian wit could suggest, or Parisian taste fully enjoy. The humor of the libretto depends very much on whether it is intrinsically funny that a husband should have any claims over his wife, except that she should bear his name and spend his money. Taking this for granted, the action of the opera is broadly humorous. The most judicious cannot fail to laugh at the absurdities of the transformations of heroic characters in the opera. The veteran oracle Calchas—M. Lagriffoul—enters into the love affairs of Helen—Mlle. Tosteé—with a spirit worthy of a better cause, and disports himself generally in a most hilarious manner. Agamemnon—M. Duchesne—is a stalwart and noisy promoter of the inalienable rights of handsome wives and of all manner of bacchanalian festivities, furnishing a paternal example which is energetically followed by his ‘fast’ young offspring, Orestes—Mlle. De Felcourt—who represents the ‘Young America,’ or rather the ‘Young Paris,’ of the play. Menelaus, capitally represented by Mr. Leduc, is a lank, angular, stupid dolt of a husband, the butt of all the practical jokers of the festive crowd which surround him. Paris—M. Guffroy—is a handsome and irrepressible youth, who disarms all opposition by his tact, wit and boldness. Subsidiary to these characters are Ajax I. and Ajax II., represented by M. Benedik and M. Monier; Achilles, by M. Valter; Bacchis, by Mlle. Juliani; Parthaenis, by Mlle. Marguerite, and Lana, by Mlle. Mathilde. As will be seen, the cast is extremely strong.
The plot is trifling. The first act begins with a gay scene before the Temple of Jupiter, where his ‘jolly’ worshippers perform a brief ceremony and depart, leaving the serio-comic old Calchas, who has a consultation with Helen about Paris, the result being that the priest advises the young wife to run away with the latter. A bacchanalian chorus follows, of the liveliest sort, after which Paris comes in disguised as a shepherd. He tells the story of the choice of the three goddesses in a light and pleasing aria, which is likely to become popular. Helen returns, and is at once overcome by her passion for Paris. The two make love most absurdly.n Paris disappears, and all of the other characters enter with a stirring and effective chorus—‘Voici les rois de la Gréce’—and the ridiculous sports begin, the chief being a series of conundrums elaborately bad. Paris wins all the prizes in this burlesquecontest, delights Helen, and gets the accommodating Calchas to send off the trouiblesome old Menalaus, so as to give the lovers a better opportunity. The act closes with a most amusing tableaux [sic], the hapless husband with his carpet sack and green umbrella, departing, assisted by the pushes, kicks and jeers of the lively throng. The final choruses are in Offenbach’s best vein, and were given with much spirit.
The second act presents Helen struggling qwith her passion for Paris, who fails either to move or frighten her. The comes a comic interlude, representing the ‘Game of the Goose,’ which cannot be described, and again the lovers are brought together alone. The acting and the duo in the burlesque somnambulist scene are the best things in the opera. Both Mlle. Tostée and M. Guffroy acquitted themselves in this scene with even more than their usual ability. The finale is made ludicrous by the unrexpected return of Menelaus, who surprises them in their billings and cooings, and Paris has to retreat.
The last act introduces the festive revelers at a watering place, who discuss the prevalent demoralization; the result being that husbands are nuisances who ought to be restrained if not abated. Menelaus and Helen come in, the latter sulky and quarrelsome, and the former suspicious. It is decided that the former must appease the wrath of the gods by giving up his wife. Finally, Paris, in the character of a grand augur of Venus, sails in on a galley of the most gorgeous character and takes off the willing Helen with general consent.
The music of ‘La Belle Hélène’ will not compare will with that of its predecessor here. It is more subordinate to the libretto, and seldom is worked up into such well defined movements as abound in the ‘Grand Duchess.’ It is safe to predict that its melodies will not become anything like so popular as those of the latter opera. Offenbach’s peculiar power of conveying humorous or grotesque ideas in music is however, often displayed, perhaps as much so as in the ‘Grand Duchess.’ The acting was capital, and of a worse character morally than that of the ‘Duchess,’ while some of the costumes were notably indecent. The scenery and stage outfit were excellent, the closing tableaux being brilliant in the extreme.”
“‘La Belle Hélène,’ by Offenbach, was produced here last evening. We need hardly add that the house was filled with a fashionable and appreciative audience. Mr. Bateman's bold and hazardous experiment has proved successful, and after ‘La Grand Duchesse’ he is certain of a hearing for any work that he may choose to select from the extensive and almost unexplored repertoire of Offenbach. ‘La Belle Hélène’ is an earlier work than ‘La Grand Duchesse.’ It was produced in 1864, and immediately obtained a popular success. At the hour when we write it is not possible to enter into its merits, or in fact to speak of it at all in a critical spirit. For the moment we content ourselves with recording the performance and the success which it unquestionably obtained. The music of the opera in certain dance forms, has become familiar to the public. It is light, rhymetic [sic] and catching. The ensembles are always striking, and sometimes very odd. This result is due in a great measure to the libretto, which is capitally written. It is of course the old story of Helen and Paris, burlesqued in a way that would have made Hawthorne's blood run cold. Between the music and the dialogue the audience was kept in a constant state of laughter. There is perhaps a little too much dialogue, but it is so good that it seems a shame even to suggest its abbreviation. Yet the scissors must be applied.
We have never known a first performance to go so well. There was not a halt from beginning to end. Mme. Tostee as Hélène was in inimitable. Neither Schneider nor Tantin, who played the same par in Paris, excelled her. She sang with spirit and acted charmingly. Of the other parts we shall take another opportunity to speak. The chorus and orchestra were alike good; and the costumes and scenery left nothing to be desired. The finales and many of the numbers were encored. The success indeed was unmistakeable [sic], and what is more pleasant to say, it was deserved.”
“‘La Belle Helene’ was produced last night for the first time at the French Theater, before a large and apparently well satisfied audience. The applause of the galleries was enthusiastic. That of the boxes was for obvious reasons somewhat subdued. The opera was first brought out in Paris in 1864. It is, therefore, of earlier date than the ‘Grand Duchess’ by which the composer is better known in this country, and several of the airs are apparently the crude ideas which have since been elaborated and consigned to long popularity in the latter work. One or two of the numbers have a higher scientific value than anything in the ‘Grande Duchess.’ But as a whole the music is less sprightly and pleasing than that of the opera which has just been withdrawn, and not more than one or two of the songs are destined to great public favor. The opportunities for the most comical sort of burlesque acting are abundant, and in the hands of this company, which embraces so many superior actors, we need hardly any that they are availed of to the fullest extent. The stage business is of course well done; many of the situations are exceedingly laughable; the scenery is good; the dresses are rich; the choruses are strong enough and are fairly drilled. The story is nothing more than the seduction of . . . [brief plot/cast summary]. It would be presuming too much upon the classical culture of the public to suppose that any large part of the audience knew much of the history or legends in which these heroic personages figure, or that the absurdity of the burlesque can consequently be very widely appreciated. For this reason, among others, we do not anticipate for ‘La Belle Heléne [sic] such a long run as its predecessor enjoyed.
The performance belongs to a class which we cannot but regret to see coming into vogue. Seduction and elicit passion are not made respectable by the countenance of the Homeric Greeks, and an adulterer is just as wicked in tunic and buskins as in a dress-coat and calf-skin boots. The portion of the legend of Helen which has been selected for the plot of this opera is intrinsically unfit for the stage. The language does not improve it. The gross points are made more gross; the text is loaded with indecent innuendos, the action in several places is simply vile; and the costumes of certain characters are more lascivious than anything we have yet seen in a respectable theater. Two or three years ago, ‘La Belle Helene’ would not have been tolerated in New-York. If it become popular now we shall grieve for the degeneracy of our people. Let it be remembered that this play is not a satire. It contains no bitterness, and save an occasional fling at little fashions of the day, it conveys no reproof. Vice here is triumphant, and virtue is represented only by a red-haired idiot. Moral filth is exposed, not that it may be a target for the shafts of sarcasm and ridicule, but merely because it is filthy. There are people who revel in this sort of drama, who will crowd the galleries of the old French Theater all the more for reading what we have written—people who gloat over the literature which Southey called the furniture at the bagnios; but to such we do not speak. There are many respectable ladies and gentlemen, however, who, having enjoyed the fun and vivacity of the ‘Grande Duchesse,’ without penetrating its thin crust of decorum, may be tempted to seek for similar amusement in ‘La Belle Heléne,’ all such we recommend to stay away. If we must have Offenbach, in the name of decency let her Highness of Gerolstein come back again.”
This opera is very controversal because of the indecency of its plot, and the press usually treats it badly. However, the frivolities and the bad press make this opera even more attractive to the audience and thus garantees sold out performances for long to come. Moreover, the media is rather exaggerating in this case, because this performance is done quite tastefully. The French actors and more so actresses understand to gloss over the rather indecent scenes with light-hearted elegance and thus make them less offensive.
The harmony of the ensemble during the performance is as usual exemplary, clearly exceeding the other opera and theater companies in the city. The orchestra plays the music excellently, the scenery and stage design is brilliant. In the leading roles Mrs. Tostee (Helene), Mr. Guffroy (Paris), and Mr. Duchesne (Agamemnon) stand out.
“Yesterday, we gave succinctly our estimation of the Belle-Hélène. We owe our readers some details today. We won’t do them the insult of analyzing the piece. Who doesn’t know the struggle of the three goddesses on Mount Ida, the judgment of Paris, his amour with Helen, the siege and sack of Troy? On these facts, MM. H. Meilhac and L. Halévy have built a comical fantasy that has dispelled the spleen of Parisians, as you know, for almost the past four years. We find there, nevertheless, some tediousness, and our artists would do well to exercise some cuts in the game of charades in the first act, ahd the dice game, in the second.
The music has all the qualities that distinguish that of the Grande-Duchesse: lively, sprightly, witty, burlesque as needed, masterly at moments. One doesn’t come upon, however, melodies that are worth the Dites lui [from La Grande-Duchesse] or choruses as graceful as those of the maids of honor, nor a trio of the height of that of the conspirators. As for the famous Bu qui s’avance [Le roi barbu qui s’avance], it merits its reputation. The first-act finale, which also closes the piece in the third, is charming and of remarkable workmanship.
Mlle Tostée was the heroine of the evening. A bit moved by its first verses, Il nous faut de l’amour, etc., how she sang the rest with great warmth, how admirable she was in the scenes with Calchas and Paris that followed. She had some expressions that carried away the hall, and gave the audience the equivalent of Il est charmant! From the Grande-Duchesse, at the same time that throbbing, swept away, bewildered, she flung these words at the Trojan shepherd: “Ah! You are famously handsome, go!” She surpassed herself during the finale of the first act.
In the second act, Mlle Tostée sang, with as much charm as wit, the verses
Tell me, Venus, what pleasure do you find
In making my virtue cascade [fall down] like this?
In the duet with Paris, during which she asks herself whether she’s dreaming or not, she wasn’t inferior to herself, and it’s impossible to relate minutely with a more mischievous impudence the verses in which she shows Menelaus that a husband who knows how to live always gives a warning before coming into his house. Only brutes enter their wives’ quarters like a wild boar in his lair; well-brought-up folks turn the key in the lock several times. In the third act, the role of Helen is musically more eclipsed: there, Mlle Tostée continued to show that she was a consummate actress.
Mlle Felcourt, as Oreste, had some animation and sang the verses O Oia képhale! very well. The role of this person, whom one would scarcely believe is destined to kill Clytemnestra, is amusing enough. The Orestes of MM. Melihac and Halévy has no relation at all, one guessesk, to that of Racine or Crébillon.
M. Guffroy’s corpulence is a bit too pronounced for the role of Paris, but the Beautiful Helen’s love for this clumsy shepherd becomes only the more grotesque. The artist was as good as one can be. The role of Agamemnon, king of kings, agreed with M. Duchesne perfectly and he revealed himself there as superior, in our opinion, to the way he was as General Boum. M. Leduc is an accomplished Menelaus. M. Lagriffoul (Calchas) is a good comedian, but his voice is wanting. M. Valter distinguished himself in the role of the boiling Achilles, MM. Monier and Benedict, disguised as Ajax, made the audience laugh. We’ve already said that the chorus was perfect, the costumes sumptuous and the sets excellent. The conductor deserves special praise.
At the end of the performance, the artists were called back, and several voices were elevated to call back M. Bateman also, who had had the good taste not to appear. In Paris, after a first performance, one surely calls back the artists and sometimes the composer, but the idea of calling out the director wouldn’t occur to anyone. This one has the very great merit of furnishing material without which all dramatic productions would be impossible, but after all he’s not the creator, he’s not the artist nor the artisan, he neither conceived nor executed it. A publisher doesn’t pretend to share the glory of the writer he edits: it’s enough that he shares in the material profits. The position of a director towards the writers and artists is the same. One is too impelled, in America, to confuse the cultivation of talent with the talent itself. Because we’re enemies of sic vos non vobis [thus do ye, but not for yourselves], we don’t pretend at all to disparage the special merit of men capable of daring enterprises, like M. Bateman, who risk both success and principal without flinching: we only distinguish between very diverse types of attainments.
It wold be difficult to surmise from the present to the future reserved for La Belle-Hélène. We believe in a solid success, even though the poem [libretto] doesn’t include the same elements as La Grande Duchesse to please the American public. We wouldn’t dare to talk about the cause of this, but we’ve found it all spoken by one of our colleagues, the critic of the Tribune, and we translate: ‘It would be presuming too much upon the classical culture of the public to suppose that any large part of the audiences know much of the history or legends in which these heroic personages figure, or that the absurdity of the burlesque can consequently be very widely appreciated. . . . ' [New York Tribune, 3/27/68, p.4]
This admission is found in a newspaper that extols every day the extent of education in the United States. O Homer! It’s not on this side of the Atlantic that you count a lot of fervent admirers, and the war of Troy, and all the sublimities of heroic times in Greece are a dead letter for the majority of the fellow-citizens of M. Benjamin Wade, the ex-pit sawyer [U.S. Senator, former laborer on the Erie Canal, very radical Republican]. It’s the Tribune that declares it, and without blushing.
The Tribune’s critic is one of those virtuous ill-tempered [people] we spoke about yesterday. He veils his face before the vileness of MM. H. Meilhac and Halévy, and he calls upon Southey to help him qualify these unqualified quibbles of ‘literature. . . . ‘ Truly we don’t dare to write the term employed by the bashful critic of the Tribune: as in Latin, ‘Virtue in words defies honesty.’
A propos the misadventures of Menelaus, the George Dandin [Molière, ‘George Dandin, or the Confounded Husband’] of antiquity, our critic lets loose the big word of adultery. It’s the case of repeating the exclamation of Saint-Evremond [French soldier, hedonist, essayist, critic, 1613-1703] or of we don’t know what other 17th-century skeptic, who ate meat one Friday. It thundered during the repast. ‘My God, here’s a lot of noise about a little thing!’ exclaimed the skeptic. Not that we treat adultery like an inconsequential thing, but it isn’t proper to use this huge word when it’s a matter of trifles destined not to leave any impression on the soul at all, and above all about stories that are known a million times, whose essence you wouldn’t know how to modify without being laughed at.
The austere glossarist of the Tribune claims that two or three years ago, ‘one wouldn’t have tolerated the Belle-Hélène in New York.’ Confound it! Even if this piece has no other merit than to give a light survey of mythology to an American audience which, according to the Tribune, doesn’t know anything about the heroic period, that would be reason enough to perform it. Nevertheless, our colleague, completely pickled in chastity, nearly invokes the power of M. Kennedy [who tried to burn down New York City by setting fires]. The Puritans’ virtue certainly isn’t tolerance. Our moral paragon continues thus: ‘If La Belle-Hélène becomes popular, we will weep over the degeneracy of our people.’ [NY Tribune, 3/27/68, p. 4: ‘If it becomes popular now we shall grieve for the degeneracy of our people.’] It has degenerated very quickly in two years, the people, seeing that in 1866, it wouldn’t have tolerated what it’s applauding today. Doubtless it would be worth more, according to the Tribune, to swoon before the absurd dramas of the Bowery, which are almost the only vintage dramatic productions.
‘One might note well,’ adds our immaculate colleague, ‘that this piece is not a satire.’ This observation is correct, at least up to a certain point. Certain features prevail against religious comedies of all times. Who knows if eminently venerable and authentic legends won’t find, over a thousand years, authors to satirize them and a public to applaud the satire? When a Greek entered the Temple of Jupiter, father of Gods and Men, he was as completely seized with pious respect as the most fervent Christian entering his Church today. He felt altogether as moved [and] affected by religious awe, and the ceremonies of his cult seemed as imposeing to him as the ceremonies of our own beliefs can appear sacred to us. And notwithstanding this cult that so many men took to be the utmost expression of exterior religion, that creed has perished and is nothing more than an object of derisioin. It’s a lesson and a precept that one ought not forget.
Let’s return to the virtuous gentleman from the Tribune. He ends by advising people who respect themselves not to set foor in the Théâtre-Francais. By the mere fact, it’s a catchword among the species of those who formerly did the same at the Herald, and of the Rev. Smith, toward The Black Crook. Only, we think that one isn’t altogether ruined for having seen La Belle-Hélène. The virtues that would be apt to stumble for such a little thing are quite fragile, and you have to believe that writers of the Tribune school have a very meager confidence in the force of people’s consciences, to imagine that witty fancies like that can corrupt them.
Let’s not imagine, because we wage war against the peevish ones who transform mere trifles into scandals, that we champion, without reservation, the type to which La Belle-Hélène belongs. We don’t see anything monstrous there, and Offenbach’s pieces are a diversion that pleases us from time to time, but we would also like some more elevated inspirations. The puritans, who are by temperament and by inclination butchers [hangmen] of merriment, gladly proclaim that he who laughts at a broad joke isn’t fit to appreciate the grand conceptions of human genius. That’s a judgment of narrow minds.
A person such as one who will smile at some stunt in La Belle-Hélène isn’t [any] less capable of appreciating Homer, and once the performance is over, M. Offenbach’s Hélène will disappear and only leave in memory the great figure delineated by the poet, the face of that woman [who was] so beautiful that ‘the old
Men of Troy, who came to curse her for the evils that she inflicted on their beloved city, were unable, upon seeing her, to keep from trembling with admiration and from crying out, “Yes, one can understand that war broke out on her account and that Paris’s heart would be set afire.”’ Because one laughs at the two Ajaxes of M. Offenbach, who look like two cakes, one doesn’t admire less the wonderful tragedy of Sophocles and its overwhelming grandeur. We won’t stop ourselves from repeating: Desipere in loco [Be foolish once in a while], that’s the sage’s motto.
That’s enough tediousness. It’s the Veuillot from the Tribune [a French journalist, who worked for l’Univers and was known for his Catholic super-orthodoxy] and his puritanism which have carried us away for so long. But just as we detest so much the affectations of virtue of the ‘spotless ones’ and their sighs, and their transports, and their Christian objurgations against those who don’t want to make a sepulcher out of this earth,
Et leur cris inhumains aux ombres d’indècence
Que d’un mot ambigu peut avoir l’innocence
[Le Misanthrope—la tirade de Célimène, Act III, Scene IV]
And their inhuman outcries to the shades of indecency,
[So] that [scarcely] an ambiguous word can be innocent
so much we hate those pretenses, we say, that we can’t forbear from denouncing them and attacking them everywhere we find them.”
The performances of this operetta have been sold-out every time so far. The reason why this work is so successful, is that the French ensemble is very capable of lightening up the indecencies with skill and elegance. Regarding the stage design and the quality of performance we completely agree with the daily press. Although the performers of the leading roles are not in the possession of brilliant vocal skills, they are excellent actors and never cross the line into indecency. Tostee is brilliant as ‘Helene’ and receive enthusiastic applause every night. Chorus and orchestra are strong and perform well.
“After many announcements and frequent postponements, ‘La Belle Helene’ was produced for the first time at the French Theatre on March 26, in the presence of a large and decidedly appreciative audience. ‘La Belle’ is broad and queer, and therefore suits the French, and we may also add, the American taste, for there is no denying the fact that we are getting ourselves ‘up’ in all the lascivious teachings of the French vulgate, and take to the new order of things with a keen, immoral relish. Tostee, who wasn’t ‘ailing’ on the occasion of ‘La Belles’ debut, soared in the realms of exotic bliss, and undulated like—like—like—anything. We do not believe, however, that ‘Helene’ will outstrip ‘Gerolstein’ in the race for popular favor.”