Opera may not be the new rock and roll but a phalanx of brave companies with funky modern productions in a series of fringe theatres and pubs may soon ensure that no North London landlord will be able to hold his head up at the Licensed Victuallers Association without boasting of some Puccini served up with the pork scratchings. At the very least, ‘Troy Boy’ is represents a bold advance for the juggernaut of boutique opera currently barrelling across London.

Scoring cabaret-to-Radio 4 professional wit Kit Hesketh-Harvey as librettist and director gives this version of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene class and polish, and the quality’s evident in a stylish set by James Perkins dexterously assembled from a series of Cycladic white blocks, and the welcome indulgence of a six-piece orchestra.

What’s not so clear are the theatrical devices which transpose the scenes from Sparta to Surbiton to Faliraki, motivations aren’t always obvious from the recitative. Having Helen go to bed with her dreary suburban husband and dream herself on Olympus isn’t original, it featured in the Paris Chatelet production in 2001 with Felicity Lott, also modern dress and very comical.

This is part of the problem: it’s difficult to parody something which is already itself parodic – Offenbach was a contemporary of Gilbert and Sullivan and there are times in La Belle Helene when you could expect Agamemnon to chime in with a ‘here’s a how-de-do’. For me Troy Boy didn’t quite live up to its clever title since it’s neither a smartly updated grand opera, nor deconstructed into a musical in the style of Tony Britten’s pioneering work with Music Theatre London.

Trimming some of the arias and introducing more dialogue may re-shape the piece to make it even more understandable and it could lose thirty minutes without damage. Whilst appreciating Hesketh-Harvey’s cleverness, because it’s applied to a comparatively rarely-performed opera with no famous tunes used as television advertisements, it doesn’t have the accessibility it might achieve if the same techniques were overlaid on Butterfly or Carmen.

The singing is almost flawless, and again London is fortunate to have a pool of assured and well developed young voices from which to cast. Rosaling Coad certainly climbs the mountain as Helen, and I liked her poutingly spoilt characterization as well as the power and clarity in her voice. Her lover Paris is a testing role for a lyric tenor, which Christopher Diffey inhabits superbly with bright, vaulting, almost over-sung high notes and the ensemble is excellent and frequently underpinned by the warm and beautifully supported Bass of Marcin Gesla as Agamemnon.

It is amazing that work of this quality can be presented for a ticket price of £12. I hope the cast are getting paid, but it’s the best bargain in town.

Runs until 5th March

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.