Last night at North London’s Gatehouse theatre saw the Merry Opera Company perform La Belle Hélène, Offenbach’s Trojan War parody of Grand Opera, translated/re-worked by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and enticingly re-labelled Troy Boy. Hesketh-Harvey is best known as half of the cabaret duo Kit and the Widow, but has also been a regular translator of opera for the ENO and others.

Rosie Coad as Helen and Christopher Diffey as Paris, © Polly Hancock
Rosie Coad as Helen and Christopher Diffey as Paris,
© Polly Hancock

The four-year-old Merry Opera Company is the creation of Matthew Quirk, who confesses in the programme notes to having fallen asleep in many operas, the result being the company’s mission to provide opera for “people who love music and beautiful singing but who may be intimdated (or bored) by high culture”. With this production, the company were in pretty safe territory: La Belle Hélène was a massive success from the day of its première, but I don’t think anyone has ever considered it “high culture”. Whether you choose to call it opera, opéra bouffe or operetta, it’s a racy, irreverent farce.

For this version, we start in a dodgy Greek taverna in suburbia, where desperate housewife Helen is bored with cellphone-addicted husband Menelaus and seeks solace in the charms of handsome waiter Paris. We morph neatly into Helen’s dreams of ancient Greece, with wastrel playboy Orestes sponging money from pompous father Agamemnon and thumbing his nose at the loutish Achilles and his friends the two Ajaxes.

La Belle Hélène is a mix of spoken dialogue and musical numbers. From what I could see (I don’t know the original all that well), Troy Boy sticks close to the original for the musical numbers (within the constraints of a five person orchestra) and re-writes most of the dialogue to fill it with present-day gags. There’s even an operatic in-joke that I can’t resist quoting (Helen: "So will you win the contest by your beauty?" Paris: "No, by my brains." Helen: "By your brains? But you’re a tenor.") Personally, I think Offenbach would have approved. The whole concept of La Belle Hélène is to abuse the Trojan War story by turning its characters into banal present-day Parisians and loading it with banter, and Troy Boy simply goes for a twenty-first century England equivalent.

The acting was uniformly excellent, the singing and music were good enough without being generally outstanding. Rosalind Coad made a pretty, flirtatious Helen: her voice took a while to warm up, but she produced some lovely lyrical singing in Acts II and III. Anthony Flaum was firmly in command of the stage as Orestes, a fine echo of the original production of La Belle Hélène in which the prima donna Hortense Schneider complained bitterly of being upstaged. Matthew Quirk played his mostly spoken part of the augur Calchas in splendid Gilbert-and-Sullivan style, with a faint air of confusion throughout.

All in all, The Merry Opera Company delivered what they said on the tin: an evening of undemanding good fun. If you’re looking either for the purest singing, the greatest high art or the edgiest modernisation, it won’t be for you. If you want a good night out with plenty of laughs and pretty music, it’s just about spot on.