top of page

Jacques Offenbach

The Beautiful Helen

 Helen, queen of the Sparta, is abducted by Paris, a prince of Troy, by Maarten van Heemskerck 

Jacques Offenbach - La Belle Hélène

La belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen), is an opéra bouffe in three acts by Jacques Offenbach to an original French libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The operetta parodies the story of Helen's elopement with Paris, which set off the Trojan War.

It was first performed at Paris's Théâtre des Variétés on December 17, 1864, starring Hortense Schneider and José Dupuis. While some experts (cf Grove) are of the opinion that the creation of La belle Hélène was a "largely untroubled" affair, others (cf Jacob) paint a different picture: Although Offenbach had managed at great cost to persuade Schneider, known by then as "La Snédèr", to accept the role of Helen, the premiere remained in doubt to the very last minute. During rehearsals, La Snédèr constantly complained that the extravagant Léa Silly (in a male role as Oreste) was trying to upstage her: La Silly extemporized (a privilege reserved for the prima donna); she imitated her; she danced a cancan in her back while she was singing an important aria, etc. etc. La Snédèr not only walked off the set repeatedly, but kept threatening to leave the world, or at least Paris, altogether! It took all of Offenbach's skills at creating harmony to see the production through.

La belle Hélène was an instant success with both the public and the critics and enjoyed an initial run of 700 performances. Premieres in Vienna (1865), Berlin (1865), London (1866), and Chicago (1867) followed shortly. It also had a run in New York City at the Grand Opera House beginning on April 13, 1871.[1] It had its Czech premiere in Prague in 1875, under Adolf Čech.

The Judgement of Paris by Anselm Feuerbach



 (The Beautiful Helen)

Opéra-bouffe in three acts by Jacques Offenbach,
French libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.

Agamemnon, King of Kings
Ménélas, King of Sparta
Paris, son of King Priam of Troy
Calchas, high priest of Jupiter
Oreste, son of Agamemnon
Ajax I, King of Salamis
Second Ajax, King of the Locrians 
Philocome, Calchas' attendant 
Helene, Queen of Sparta
Parthénis, a courtesan 
Bacchis, Helen's attendant 
Ladies and Gentlemen, Princes, Guards, People,
Slaves, Helen’s servants, Mourners of Adonis

Place: Sparta and the shores of the sea
Time: Before the Trojan War

Premiere cast (two-act version), 21 October 1858
Premiere cast (four-act version), 7 February 1874

Helen of Troy

The Meeting Between Menelaus and Helen after Helen's Affair with Paris

Characters and Mythology


In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was the son of King Atreus and Queen Aerope of Mycenae, the brother of Menelaus, the husband of Clytemnestra and the father of Iphigenia, Orestes and Chrysothemis. When Helen, the wife of Menelaus, was taken to Troy by Paris, Agamemnon commanded the united Greek armed forces in the ensuing Trojan War.

Upon Agamemnon's return from Troy, he was killed  by Aegisthus, the lover of his wife, Clytemnestra.

The so-called Mask of Agamemnon which was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann

In Greek mythology, Menelaus was a king of Mycenaean Sparta, the husband of Helen of Troy, and the son of Atreus and Aerope. According to the Iliad, Menelaus was a central figure in the Trojan War, leading the Spartan contingent of the Greek army, under his elder brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae.

Tenor. King of Sparta and husband of Helen. He finds her in bed with Paris. Created ( 1864 ) by Herr Kopp.

Paris, the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, appears in a number of Greek legends. Probably the best known was his elopement with Helen, queen of Sparta, this being one of the immediate causes of the Trojan War. Later in the war, he fatally wounds Achilles in the heel with an arrow as foretold by Achilles’s mother, Thetis. The name Paris is probably Luwian and comparable to Pari-zitis, attested as a Hittite scribe's name.

Tenor. Son of King Priam. Disguised as a shepherd, he wins Helen in a contest. Her husband finds them in bed together and Paris makes a quick getaway. Disguised as a priest, he instructs Helen to atone for her sins by sailing with him to Cythera. He throws off his disguise when they are on the ship. The Trojan War is about to begin. Created ( 1864 ) by José Dupuis.

Parisi n the Phrygian Cap
by Antoni Brodowski 

In Greek mythology, Calchas  son of Thestor, was an Argive seer, with a gift for interpreting the flight of birds that he received of Apollo: "as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp". He also interpreted the entrails of the enemy during the tide of battle.

Calchas:Bass. High Priest of Jupiter, who arranges for Paris to win Helen in a contest.Created ( 1864 ) by Pierre‐Eugène Grenier.

Calcas - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Greek mythology, Orestes was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. He is the subject of several Ancient Greek plays and of various myths connected with his madness and purification, which retain obscure threads of much older ones.

Soprano. Travesti role. Son of Agamemnon and nephew of Helen. Created 
( 1864 ) by Léa Silly.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Remorse of Orestes

In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy, also known as Helen of Sparta, or simply Helen, was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world, who was married to King Menelaus of Sparta, but eloped with Prince Paris of Troy, resulting in the Trojan War when the Achaeans set out to reclaim her and bring her back to Sparta. She was believed to have been the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and was the sister of Clytemnestra, Castor and Polydeuces.

Elements of her putative biography come from classical authors such as Aristophanes, Cicero, Euripides and Homer (in both the Iliad and the Odyssey). Her story appears in Book II of Virgil's Aeneid. In her youth, she was abducted by Theseus. A competition between her suitors for her hand in marriage sees Menelaus emerge victorious. An oath sworn beforehand by all the suitors (known as the Oath of Tyndareus) requires them to provide military assistance in the case of her abduction; this oath culminates in the Trojan War. When she marries Menelaus she is still very young; whether her subsequent involvement with Paris is an abduction or a seduction is ambiguous.

The legends recounting Helen's fate in Troy are contradictory. Homer depicts her as a wistful figure, even a sorrowful one, who comes to regret her choice and wishes to be reunited with Menelaus. Other accounts have a treacherous Helen who simulates Bacchic rites and rejoices in the carnage. Ultimately, Paris was killed in action, and in Homer's account Helen was reunited with Menelaus, though other versions of the legend recount her ascending to Olympus instead. 

Soprano. Queen, wife of Menelaus, who finds her in bed with Paris, who won her in a contest. Instructed by a priest (Paris in disguise) to sail for Cythera. As she obeys, the Trojan War begins. Created (1864) by Hortense Schneider.

Helen of Troy
by Evelyn De Morgan (1898)

Trojan War

In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. The war is one of the most important events in Greek mythology and has been narrated through many works of Greek literature, most notably Homer's Iliad. The Iliad relates four days in the tenth year of the decade-long siege of Troy; the Odyssey describes the journey home of Odysseus, one of the war's heroes. Other parts of the war are described in a cycle of epic poems, which have survived through fragments. Episodes from the war provided material for Greek tragedy and other works of Greek literature, and for Roman poets including Virgil and Ovid.


The war originated from a quarrel between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, after Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, gave them a golden apple, sometimes known as the Apple of Discord, marked "for the fairest". Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris, who judged that Aphrodite, as the "fairest", should receive the apple. In exchange, Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful of all women and wife of Menelaus, fall in love with Paris, who took her to Troy. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Helen's husband Menelaus, led an expedition of Achaean troops to Troy and besieged the city for ten years because of Paris' insult. After the deaths of many heroes, including the Achaeans Achilles and Ajax, and the Trojans Hector and Paris, the city fell to the ruse of the Trojan Horse. The Achaeans slaughtered the Trojans (except for some of the women and children whom they kept or sold as slaves) and desecrated the temples, thus earning the gods' wrath. Few of the Achaeans returned safely to their homes and many founded colonies in distant shores. The Romans later traced their origin to Aeneas, Aphrodite's son and one of the Trojans, who was said to have led the surviving Trojans to modern-day Italy.

The ancient Greeks believed that Troy was located near the Dardanelles and that the Trojan War was a historical event of the 13th or 12th century BC, but by the mid-19th century, both the war and the city were widely seen as mythological. In 1868, however, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann met Frank Calvert, who convinced Schliemann that Troy was a real city at what is now Hissarlik in Turkey. On the basis of excavations conducted by Schliemann and others, this claim is now accepted by most scholars.

The Burning of Troy by Johann Georg Trautmann

The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David

Offenbach - La belle Hélène

Opernhaus Zürich, 1997

Carlos Chausson, Deon van der Walt, Vesselina Kasarova

Orchestra, Chorus: Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich
Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt




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 a "contest of wit" (outrageously silly wordgames) with the Greek kings under the direction of Agamemnon, whereupon he reveals his identity. Helen, who was trying to settle after her youthful adventure and aware of Paris's backstory, decides that fate has sealed her fate. The Trojan prince is crowned victor by Helen, to the disgust of the lout Achilles and the two bumbling Ajaxes. Paris is invited to a banquet by Helen's husband, the king of Sparta Menelaus. Paris has bribed Calchas to "prophesise" that Menelaus must at once proceed to Crete, which he agrees to reluctantly under general pressure.

Aphrodita introducing Paris to Helen. 1777-80. Gavin Hamilton


While the Greek kings party in Menelaus's palace in his absence, and Calchas is caught cheating at a board game, Paris comes to Helen at night. After she sees off his first straightforward attempt at seducing her, he returns when she has fallen asleep. Helen has prayed for some appeasing dreams and appears to believe that this is one, and so resists him not much longer. Menelaus unexpectedly returns and finds the two in each other's arms. Helen, exclaiming 'la fatalité, la fatalité', tells him that it is all his fault: A good husband knows when to come and when to stay away. Paris tries to dissuade him from kicking up a row, but to no avail. When all the kings join the scene, berating him and telling him to go back where he came from, Paris departs, vowing to return and finish the job.

Gavin Hamilton - The Abduction of Helen, 1784


The kings and their entourage have moved to Nauplia for the summer season, and Helen is sulking and protesting her innocence. Venus has retaliated for the treatment meted out to her protégé Paris by making the whole population giddy and amorous, to the despair of the kings. A high priest of Venus arrives on a boat, explaining that he has to take Helen to Cythera where she is to sacrifice 100 heifers for her offenses. Menelaus pleads with her to go with the priest, but she refuses, saying that it is he, and not she, who has offended the goddess. But when she realises that the priest is Paris in disguise, she goes on board with him, and they sail away together.

The embarkation of Helen by Claudio Francesco Beaumont

bottom of page