La belle Hélène ("The Beautiful Helen" or "The Fair Helen") is an opéra bouffe, or operetta, in three acts by Jacques Offenbach to an original French libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. It was first performed at Paris's Théâtre des Variétés on December 17, 1864, starring Hortense Schneider and José Dupuis.
Paris, son of Priam, arrives with a missive from the goddess Venus to the high priest Calchas, commanding him to procure for Paris the love of Helen, promised him by Venus when he awarded the prize of beauty to her and refused it to Juno and Minerva.
Paris disguises himself as a shepherd, and wins three prizes at the competition of the Greek princes, whereupon he reveals his identity. All the world had known that he had awarded the apple to Venus, and Helen recognises him as her destiny. The Trojan prince is crowned victor by Helen, to the disgust of the rough Achilles, and the two giants Ajax the Great and Ajax the Lesser. Paris is invited to a banquet by the timid Menelaus, husband of Helen. Paris has bribed Calchas to have Philocomus rattle the thunder gong and to prophesy that Menelaus must at once proceed to Crete, in order to save the nation.
After parodies on the life of the Greek court, in which the honest Calchas appears as a gambling cheat, Paris comes to Helen at night. Although she knows her fate, she seemingly resists him, and he uses strategy. He departs, but returns when she has fallen asleep. He tells Helen that what will now occur is only a dream, and she is content to risk all with this understanding at this moment. Menelaus unexpectedly returns. Helen hardly has time to clothe herself, and Paris departs in haste, but, returning in the guise of a priest of Venus, carries Helen away. Menelaus is enraged, Achilles angry, but Calchas smiles contentedly, for he has made a good profit out of the transaction. Agamemnon shrugs his shoulders and resignedly exclaims: "Well, nothing remains but to mobilise the army and prepare for the ten-year Trojan war."
References and external links
Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.