Belle Hélène pears with crumble

A new old opera and Pierrick Sorin, French video artist

Belle Hélène pears are one of my very favorite French desserts. Succulent just-ripe pears, simmered in a spice-infused light syrup, served with vanilla ice cream and topped with warm extra-dark chocolate sauce… What could be more perfect for fall ? Escoffier got it right when he invented this dessert, a tribute to the operetta La Belle Hélène.

This summer, David-Nicolas decided to buy us tickets to see La Belle Hélène at the central Théâtre du Châtelet. This operetta, or opéra-bouffe, as it’s called in French, was written by Jacques Offenbach and it hit the stage for the first time in Paris in 1864. That just happens to be one of my favorite periods in Parisian history, and David-Nicolas is also fairly obsessed with 19th century Paris. Birds of a feather, right ?

Informal meal ?

I’ll admit that I don’t go to the opera very often, and the last time I saw any kind of show at the Théâtre du Châtelet, it was a concert. Marianne Faithfull, who was recently selling her photographs at David Lynch’s Parisian bar Silencio, rocked the house theater back in….2011 !? Already ? Still, the idea of sitting through a nearly 3-hour opera about Greek history didn’t exactly thrill me.

How wrong I was ! When I did my homework, I realized that it might just be fun : I learned that the opéra-bouffe, which in French isn’t exactly the same thing as an opérette, but we’ll ignore that for the moment, is necessarily humorous, and related to the word bouffon, or buffoon. (And here I’d been hoping that it meant we would have a bouffe, or informal meal, before the show !)

Erotic, witty, and frivolous

The operetta written by Offenbach, about Helen of Troy, was also a satire that mocked the reign of Napoleon III, France’s ruler at the time, and nephew of the more famous Napoleon Bonaparte the first. But this summer’s version of the operetta included jabs at the Ministry of Culture’s funding (or lack thereof) and other semi-veiled comments about current politicians’ skills (or, once again, lack thereof).

Either way, classic or contemporary, La Belle Hélène is meant to be slightly erotic, witty, and frivolous, almost bordering on the grotesque. And when I discovered that the video artist Pierrick Sorin (who reminds me a little of Michael Sheen’s Bill Masters !) was in charge of the scenography of this summer’s production, I thought, “Who better than this artist, whose work never fails to leave me laughing, to design the set for La Belle Hélène ?”

Hamster wheel

And design he did ! His staging and decors were a natural extension of his existing work, which tends to highlight the absurdity of daily life. In Les Réveils de Pierrick Sorin for example, he films himself waking up every morning between 7 and 8 a.m. (an ungodly hour if you ask me). If you’re not a morning person – I’m not – you’ll recognize the repetitive nature of his comments (even if you don’t speak a lot of French) upon waking : “So tonight I’ve really got to get to bed earlier, because I’m completely exhausted…..I’m so sick of waking up tired.” Sound familiar ? Me too…. I think I’ll hit that snooze button one more time.

The first time I saw Pierrick Sorin’s work, at a gallery near the Marais, what made me laugh was a work of “optic theater” in which a tiny hologram image of Pierrick Sorin himself, jogging, was projected just above a turntable. So in place of the proverbial hamster wheel, the artist was running, breathless, on a spinning vinyl record.

Weather presenter

Sorin adapted the optic theater principle from Charles-Émile Reynaud, whose 1877 “praxinoscope” animation device predated even the Lumière brothers’ first films. And Sorin used it to amazingly contemporary effect in La Belle Hélène. If you watch the teaser video (above) carefully, you’ll notice the electric blue background, which serves the same purpose as the one you might have seen a weather presenter use on television if you’ve ever been behind the scenes.

In the foreground, on the bottom right-hand side of the screen, you’ll notice the “real” theater set, in miniature. Sorin placed a small video camera in front of this tiny decor, and simply projected it on the larger screen, superposing the actors the same way the weather presenter is superposed onto the weather map.

The opera singer’s tonsils

Besides being just plain cool, this technique has another advantage : unless you’re in the best seats in the house, rarely do you get to see the actors and singers up close. The large screen over the stage lets us do just that, so we got to see the gorgeous face of mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez (pictured right), and we probably could have even seen her tonsils if we’d been looking.

Pierrick Sorin has exhibited all over the world : the Fondation Cartier and the Georges Pompidou Center here in Paris, at the Tate Gallery in London, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Photography de Tokyo – the list goes on. He even worked on the visual creation of the New Burlesque troupe, which I mentioned in this post. What more fitting artist to set the stage for a burlesque “buffoon opera” like La Belle Hélène ?

Photo of Gaëlle Arquez courtesy of Gilles Brébant.

Belle Hélène pears with crumble

No one knows exactly why Escoffier dedicated this dessert to the operetta, and more specifically to the opera singer Hortense Schneider. And why pears ? And why all these questions ? I’m hungry, so let’s get to that recipe !

This one is an adaptation of Escoffier’s original, because it’s got an added crunch with the crumble – the recipe comes from a weekly women’s magazine here in France. You can make the crumble the day before, and it’s actually preferable to poach the pears the day before so they have time to chill thoroughly in the fridge overnight.

for poaching the pears :
- ¾ cup (150g) sugar
- 3⅓ cups (780ml) water
- 1 lemon, zested
- 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
- 4 small pears (about 19 ounces or 500g ; in France, I use the variety called Conference ; Bosc or Comice are good choices)

for the crumble :
- ¼ cup (50g) sugar
- 2½ tablespoons (40g) softened butter
- ½ cup (60g) flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon

for the chocolate sauce :
- 2½ ounces (75g) dark chocolate (around 60-70% cacao works well, or higher if you like really bitter chocolate !), broken into pieces
- ⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon (95ml) whole milk

to finish :
- 4-8 scoops best-quality vanilla ice cream

how to make it :
1. To poach the pears, first make a sugar syrup : heat the sugar and water together to boiling in a small saucepan. Add the lemon zests and ginger.
2. Peel the pears, and cut them in half lengthwise and seed them.
3. Place the pear halves into the sugar syrup and simmer very gently for 10-20 minutes. You should be able to poke a knife very easily into the pears, but they shouldn’t be disintegrating in the syrup. Turn off the heat and let the pears cool in the syrup.
4. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
5. In a medium bowl (using your fingers), or in a food processor, coarsely mix the sugar, butter, flour, and cinnamon, until you have a crumbly mixture.
6. Spread this mixture onto a baking sheet, and cook in the oven for about 15 minutes. Let this mixture cool and then crumble it into small pieces.
7. Melt the chocolate and milk together in a small bain-marie or hot water bath. Smooth the mixture by stirring with a spoon.
8. Strain the pears well. Divide half of the crumble mixture into 4 decorative dessert coupes or glasses. Place over that 1-2 scoops of ice cream and 2 pear halves.
9. Pour in a couple of spoonfuls of chocolate sauce, and top with the remaining crumble mix.
10. Serve right away, before the ice cream melts, but who’d want to wait ? Bon app’ !

serves 4

Tags : burlesque , La Belle Hélène , Théâtre du Châtelet , pears , Pierrick Sorin , operetta , video artist


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