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Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?

By Laurel Winzler


That was the question on my first visit to the Santa Fe Opera, trying unsuccessfully to locate the correct exit for the Opera House amid a massive freeway improvement project (highway signage is apparently not a New Mexican speciality)...ah well, the scenic route has its charms!


Once safely seated in the gorgeous Opera House, I unfortunately faced another scene of confusion, traffic congestion and bad direction � in the form of Santa Fe Opera's production of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène. Borrowed from the Chatelet, Paris, it apparently was hugely popular with the French critics and public when it opened there in 2000, once again confirming my suspicions of French taste (after all, they think Jerry Lewis is a genius).


This modern-dress version reminded me of the "Beach Blanket" movies, complete with Greek gods wrapped in beach towels and a chorus in clamdiggers, halter tops and sunglasses. Apparently not trusting in the inherent value of the music, the director and choreographer bombarded the audience with constant frantic movement, group "hokey-pokey" dancing, and general silliness, all of which diluted some otherwise clever concepts and ran the whole thing right into the ground.


The saving grace was the performance of Susan Graham as Hélène, in the midst of all the chaos showing again what a delightful actress she is. When she had a chance to stand still and sing she was a treat and the rest of the time she managed to rise above the mayhem with grace and good humor. Her Paris was the light-voiced but charming William Burden, who looked like the young Ricky Nelson and had a physique that allowed for a bonafide "Sam Ramey moment," as he removed his shirt to the obvious delight of his diva and his audience. The balance of the cast was adequate or better, with Barry Banks as the cuckolded King Menelas being the standout. The decision was made to do the arias in the original French (with supertitles by San Francisco's former supertitlemeister, Chris Bergen), while the spoken dialogue was performed in English, which seemed a comfortable mix for both singers and audience.


The outdoor setting provided one moment of true serendipity -- as Paris watched the sleeping Hélène and sang about the wind rustling in her gown, the Santa Fe breeze came along and obligingly ruffled her dress, earning it a round of spontaneous applause. Too bad the rest of the production lacked the same natural, honest treatment of the material, burying the wit and charm of the score under a layer of unnecessary and exhausting cutesy-ness.


Ratings: singing - 3 stars; production - 1.5 stars; choreography - don't even get me started...