Fulham Opera – Richard Strauss’s The Egyptian Helen

Richard Strauss
Die ägyptische Helena, Op.75 – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal inspired by Euripides’s Helen [sung in German with English surtitles, with reduced scoring for violin, cello, clarinet, horn, percussion, piano and organ by Paul Plummer]

Helena – Justine Viani
Menelaus – Brian Smith Walters
Aithra – Luci Briginshaw
Altair – Oliver Gibbs
Da-ud – Dominic J. Walsh
The Omniscient Mussel – Ingeborg Børch
First Serving Maid – Christine Buras
Second Serving Maid – Natasha Elliott
Hermione – Liz Stock
Chorus of Elves – Maggie Cooper, Rosalind O’Dowd, Corrine Hart, Rebecca Moulton, Donya Rafati
Chorus of Slaves – Kester Guy-Briscoe, Jack Stone, Robin Whitehouse, Graham Wheeler

Ben Woodward – Conductor

Guido Martin-Brandis – Director
Alexander McPherson – Designer
Mitch Broomhead – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 19 October, 2021
Venue: St John’s Church, Fulham, London

A war three millennia ago that continues to hedge its bets between history and myth, the latter still delivering layers of powerful imagery – the Trojan horse, the face that launched a thousand ships – that is as resonant now as it was then. Richard Strauss had originally wanted to give Helen of Troy the operetta treatment, along the lines of Offenbach in La belle Hélène, but his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had other ideas. How, and why, had Helen, a legendary bolter, and her husband King Menelaus, got back together after he had killed her lover Paris and after her infidelity had resulted in years of carnage and misery? It is the stuff of legend. The result, Die ägyptische Helena, was written in 1927-8 and revised in 1933 (the so-called Vienna Version), here in a new reduced scoring by Paul Plummer and comes after Intermezzo and before Arabella.

Yet the opera has never caught on, despite three gift roles for the two soprano and Heldentenor leads, and not forgetting the unique contribution of the Omniscient Seashell. Garsington gave the UK premiere in 1997, and The Royal Opera gave two concert performances in 1998 during its renovation period. The Garsington production was taken up by The Metropolitan Opera, New York, Deutsche Oper has staged it, and there must have been others, but they are slim pickings for this special composer/librettist partnership.

This new staging from Fulham Opera is quite something for a company that, under Ben Woodward’s guidance, has never been short of ambition – next year, La forza del destino and the start of a Ring cycle. Guido Martin-Brandis’s staging and Alexander McPherson’s designs range freely from ancient Egyptian pleated gold capes and Greek tunics to 1930s Art Deco, along the lines of Hofmannsthal’s hopes for the first Dresden production in 1928. The production is very simple, with just enough of writhing drapes and inventive lighting to suggest the strong supernatural element. Most importantly, Martin-Brandis has made way for the opera’s layers of myth, symbol and psycho-analysis – the symbolism is exhausting – so that you get the subliminal gist of Menelaus’s and Helena’s shaky grip on the reality of their relationship via hallucinations brought about by rage, desire for revenge and, simply, desire. It is marriage counselling and self-examination on an epic, even Homeric scale.

Justine Viani’s Helena sustained brightness and volume over the two hour-long acts, and she gave a good idea of Helena as a monstre sacrée, her ego bringing chaos to everything she touches. She was well paired by Brian Smith Walters as Menelaus. If the top of his range let him down a couple of times, the high centre of his voice is formidable, just right for projecting heroism and vulnerability in equal measure. The role of Aithra, who acts as a relationship-broker to the ‘will-they?/won’t they?’ husband and wife, is a lot more subtle and was sung magnificently by Luci Briginshaw, with a sure command of that Straussian brand of bright, flexible lyricism. Her performance held the evening together.

In the baggier second act (shortened in the revision), Altair, a desert king, and his son Da’ud appear, both falling for Helena, and are there mainly to reinforce the malign influence of the unhappy pair. Altair was sung by the baritone Oliver Gibbs with bracing authority, while the tenor Dominic J. Walsh hit many a sweet spot as Da’ud, whom Menelaus kills because he’s a reminder of Paris. In the smaller role of the Omniscient Seashell – half marine bivalve, half pirate radio-station – Ingeborg Børch was in sonorous, beturbanned Madame Arcati mode, and the magic continued with a group of hyperactive elves, like Valkyries at junior school, and there were two sharply characterised Serving Maids from Christine Buras and Natasha Elliott.

In a score that swerves from soaring Rosenkavalier-like melody to thick, seething chromaticism, there were impressively few pitch problems, while the seven instrumentalists gave a strong idea of the Strauss sound, especially from Francesca Bridger’s horn. Paul Plummer’s piano part added a bit of glitter and continuo glue, and the ear was grateful for the moments of organ ballast that, among other things, settled pitch. Woodwardkept the music surging forward with considerable energy.

I recall The Royal Opera’s concert performance primarily as a vehicle for voices. This Fulham Opera staging made one think about interpretations that would keep directors employed forever, which is no mean achievement.

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