The sky was gray and drippy outside on Sunday afternoon, but the birds were twittering and the sun was bright inside the Huntington Avenue Theatre, where Odyssey Opera concluded its Helen of Troy-themed triptych with Jacques Offenbach’s farcical fantasy “La belle Hélène,” an opéra-bouffe from 1864.
Through the framework of the Helen of Troy story, Offenbach roundly mocks the excesses of the rich and powerful, the corruption of the church, and gender double standards. Odyssey’s production, directed by Frank Kelley and conducted by general and artistic director Gil Rose, set the action in Offenbach’s time, at Napoleon III’s seaside resort during one of the emperor’s many opulent parties. The stage was elegantly set for plenty of laughs. However, only some of the jokes made it to shore.
The character of Hélène requires a diva with a sense of humor, and mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson was the whole package in her Odyssey debut. Makeup designer Jennifer DeMarco Gregory, hair designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt, and costume designer Brooke Stanton did their part to present her as the most beautiful woman on earth, and she did the rest. Her silky mezzo voice had the heft to parody grand opera, and her divinely expressive face carried over-the-top theatrics with no self-consciousness. When a fussy young child in the audience had to be whisked out during a saucy song, Costa-Jackson held back her second verse with an imperious “Maestro” and didn’t break character for an instant.
Further cast standouts included mezzo Jaime Korkos in full mustached, swaggering glory in the pants role of horny teenager Oreste (nice work making her suit look just a little too big, costume team!) and bass-baritone Ben Wager as the blowsy high priest Calchas. As Ajaxes 1 and 2, tenors Steven Goldstein and Gregory Zavracky spent their time onstage stuffed inside the same skimpy toga or bathing costume — a source of instant giggles that was bolstered by their strong comic singing. As Paris, tenor Adam Fisher had wit and chemistry with Costa-Jackson, but on Sunday, not the high notes, and Paris’s first song includes many octave leaps to a high B-flat.
The production team wove in references to art of the time. In the first two acts, female dancers (choreographed with elan by Marjorie Folkman) were attired like Degas’s dancing girls. During Act 3’s Rossini-parodying patriotic trio, a nude woman appeared onstage to create a tableau vivant of Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” which was rejected by the Paris Salon just a year before the premiere of “Hélène.”
But for all its pretty pictures, the show was weighed down by a clunky English translation by Richard Duployen, which shoehorned syllables where they didn’t fit and made choruses and trios largely impossible to understand. Translating the spoken dialogue to English was a good idea, but the singing belonged in French. Why make Costa-Jackson arpeggiate the phrase “chap with the apple” when it could have been “l’homme à la pomme?”
Keeping it in French also might have avoided an awkward moment in Act 3, when Paris arrives disguised as an envoy from Venus’s oracle. When 19th-century Parisians heard “je suis gai, soyez gai” they heard one thing, but when 21st-century Bostonians hear “I am gay, so be gay,” that’s a different story, and the production ran with the modern meaning. To spirit away Hélène, Fisher’s Paris affected a swishy gait and nasal lisp (“island of Thythera!”) in a hackneyed caricature of homosexuality.
In either French or English, surtitles would have been necessary for the singing, and there were none. The cast put forth its best effort to convey what was going on, and mostly succeeded, but the opéra-bouffe itself is not widely known, and by its nature, light opera should be easily understood. It’s tough to laugh at witty wordplay if one cannot understand the words.
LA BELLE HÉLÈNE
Presented by Odyssey Opera. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, June 16. www.odysseyopera.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.