The Metropolitan Opera – Die Ägyptische Helena

Die Ägyptische Helena – an opera in two acts [libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; sung in German with English Met Titles by Christopher Bergen]

Helena – Deborah Voigt
Aithra – Diana Damrau
Omniscient Mussel – Jill Grove
Menelas – Michael Hendrick
Altair – Wolfgang Brendel
Da-ud – Garrett Sorenson

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Fabio Luisi

David Fielding – Production, Set and Costume Designer
Mimi Jordan Sherin – Lighting Designer
Linda Dobell – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 19 March, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Richard Strauss’s “Die Ägyptische Helena” (The Egyptian Helen), his ninth opera and his fifth and last fully completed collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a rarity on the stage. Until its current returned to the Met, it had not been performed there since 1928, the year of its world premiere in Dresden, where it had a decidedly unenthusiastic reception.

Strauss was particularly attached to “Die Ägyptische Helena” and was dismayed by its lack of success. He even allowed his friend the conductor Clemens Krauss to prepare a shorter version of the opera, which found even more audience hostility than the original. Although the work has been produced rarely since 1928, it has won new favor over the last decade, beginning with British director/designer David Fielding’s 1997 production at Garsington Opera (the opera’s first staging in the U.K.), and continuing on through more recent concert performances in London and New York. The Met’s 2007 production was inspired by soprano Deborah Voigt, a Straussian of world stature who sang the role of Helena in a widely heralded 2002 concert performance with the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, conducted by Leon Botstein, and available on a recording from Telarc.

It’s not hard to fathom why “Die Ägyptische Helena” has been mostly ignored for eighty years. This is an opera with an almost perversely convoluted plot in which a singing bivalve (the Omniscient Mussel) plays a significant role and Freudian echoes loom large. The libretto merges the myth of Helen of Troy together with a fairytale-like plot-line featuring elves, phantoms, magic potions and sorcery. The complicated libretto has a rather peculiar genesis. Hofmannsthal originally conceived the opera as a comedy on the themes of marital infidelity and reconciliation. In the course of its development the work turned out to be something quite different, a psychologically resonating examination of love and marriage, not without its comic moments. The libretto draws on several versions of the story of Helen of Troy, including Homer’s “Odyssey” and works by Herodotus, but it is based much more on Euripides’s “Helen”, a romantic comedy of reconciliation between Helen and Menelaus and a send-up of an idea devised by the obscure 6th-century BC Greek poet Stesichorus: that it was not the real Helen but only a phantom image of her that Paris carried off to Troy, and that the real Helen remained in Egypt throughout the Trojan War.

The playful Met production recreates and enlarges David Fielding’s 1997 Garsington Opera staging. The candy-colored set features a sharply raked stage, tilting walls, gigantic doors, and an enormous silhouette of Poseidon running with a briefcase in hand. Brightly painted flats and screens in turn represent starry skies, ocean waves, and a Greek temple encircled by a wedding band. The many comic touches include a chorus of wiry white-haired and bearded elves, along with Altair’s white-suited troupe of horsemen carrying briefcases that they line up across the front of the stage. At one point, gigantic red neon arrows pointing to Helena flashed on and off across the walls. The doubling theme was underscored by having the Mussel and Poseidon clad in black in Act One, and white in Act Two. The surrealistic spectacle was so overloaded with symbolism that it was impossible to interpret all the messages in one sitting. While the symbols in themselves are often amusing, they do little to clarify Hofmannsthal’s ponderous libretto.

The score of “Die Ägyptische Helena” marks a departure from Strauss’s earlier, more avant-garde operas, “Salome” and “Elektra”. The work features many separate, identifiable arias and arresting ensembles. Some of the more spectacular moments include Helena’s big aria ‘Zweite Braut Nacht’ (Second Wedding Night) that opens Act Two and the gorgeous trio that leads to a joyful duet at the conclusion of the opera. While much of the music is on a massive and majestic scale, the score also contains some of Strauss’s most heartrending and intimate-sounding music, including the enchanting melody of a French horn accompanied by whispering strings near the end of Act One, the simple but profoundly expressive funeral music for Da-ud, and the wistful love song that Da-ud sings to Helen.

This is a well-cast and, for the most part, stunningly sung production that does justice to Strauss’s gorgeous music. Deborah Voigt brought all her vocal radiance, flexibility and power to the challenging role of Helena, effortlessly riding over Strauss’s massive orchestral climaxes. From her first to last appearance on stage, she looked and sounded sensational. The bright-voiced German soprano Diana Damrau sang the high-flying music of the sorceress Aithra, wife of Poseidon, with ravishingly beautiful sound. On this particular evening the long, demanding role of Menelas (Menelaus) was sung by American tenor Michael Hendrick, replacing Torsten Kerl who was ill. In the first act Hendrick sounded pinched and had some trouble being heard over Strauss’s vast orchestration, but by the second act his energetic and expressive voice had completely settled in. Veteran German baritone Wolfgang Brendel gave a deeply moving and musically intelligent performance as Altair, the prince of the mountains who pursues Helena, and the appealing American tenor Garrett Sorenson made a strong showing in the small tenor role of Altair’s love-struck son Da-ud. American mezzo Jill Grove, who was omnipresent but didn’t have much to sing, sounded impressive as the oracle-like Omniscient Mussel.

Fabio Luisi and the orchestra had no trouble coping with Strauss’s virtuoso and intricate music. The Italian maestro, a champion of lesser-known Strauss operas (he debuted at the 2002 Salzburg Festival in Strauss’s “Die Liebe der Danae” and conducted the subsequent festival production of “Die Ägyptische Helena” in 2003), led the musicians with exacting energy and great passion, bringing out all the instrumental colors in the richly orchestrated score, performed here in its original 1928 version. The finales to the two acts were particularly well done.

  • The premiere performance of this Metropolitan Opera production was March 15
  • Further performances scheduled for March 23, 27 & 31 and April 4 & 7
  • The performance on March 31 will be broadcast live on the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network
  • Metropolitan Opera

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