For the second of its season’s three operas showing us Helen of Troy in various circumstances, Odyssey Opera offered a Boston premiere of one of Richard Strauss’s least-known operas in a concert performance at Jordan Hall last Friday. All Boston had heard previously of Die Aegyptische Helena came in Leontyne Price’s 1981 BSO performance of the most famous aria in the score, Helen’s “Zweite Brautnacht” (Second bridal night), sung at the opening of Act II, after her passionate night of love with Menelaus.
The very title The Egyptian Helen suggests a rather bizarre treatment of the Iliad Helen, in which Paris, a good-looking prince of Troy seduces the world’s most beautiful women is seduced away from her husband, the Spartan king Menelaus. An army made of kings and soldiers from all the Greek states pursue the faithless woman over ten years.
But Strauss’s most frequent librettist, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, asked himself how an angry deserted husband could reconcile with such a wife after ten years of bloody military events. He found an answer in an early Greek writer, Stesichorus, who was fascinated by the Trojan material and composed at least two treatments of Helen’s story, one critical of her behavior and a later one absolving her of responsibility for the great war. It was the revised tale the Hofmannsthal proposed to Strauss as the subject of their sixth operatic collaboration. The version that Hofmannsthal adopted for his text represented the Helen who was in Troy with Paris as a spirit figure, not the real woman, who had been spirited off to Egypt for her safety during the war.
Hofmannsthal proposed the resulting libretto to Strauss as the basis for a “mythological operetta,” no doubt leading Strauss to imagine something like Offenbach’s winning La belle Hélène, an approach that he considered attractive, though upon actually receiving the libretto he decided it was not, in fact, suitable for a work in operetta style. Instead he writes for the kind of orchestra, and the kinds of voices, that he had employed in the previous operas.
The plot of the opera is quite straightforward in Act I, in which Helen and Menelaus are shipwrecked in a storm and arrive on a small island off the coast of Egypt where the sorceress Aithra lives, occasionally visited by her lover, Poseidon (but not in this opera; the plan was to avoid bringing any Greek gods into the story). In lieu of Poseidon’s appearance, Hofmannsthal invented a very curious participant: an omniscient mussel, a talking sea-shell sung by contralto, but appearing onstage on a stand that Strauss said made it look “like a phonograph.”
By the end of the act, Aithra has employed a potion of forgetfulness to calm Menelaus’s memories of his betrayal by Helen and to take her to bed for a night of passionate love. This act is theatrically straightforward and filled with expressive music that ends in the traquility of sleep for the couple.
But Act II becomes confusing and roiled with plot complexities including a fight (offstage) between Menelaus and a young prince, Da-ud, who is killed. (The battle is described for the audience as it happens by two of Aithra’s serving maids.) Two potions, the original one of forgetfulness and another of complete remembrance, complicate Menelaus’s reactions and a further brief determination to kill Helen before Aithra brings forth their daughter, thus reuniting the entire family. There are some other complications, and another confrontation (with Altair, Prince of the Mountains, and father of Da-ud) before the many complications of Hofmannsthal’s Act II are sorted out and the the parents and their daughter ride away on horses provided by Aithra to a newly tranquil life.
The well-balanced and artistic playing of the Odyssey Opera orchestra under the direction of Gil Rose once again aroused admiration for the color, balance, and drive in a work that had to be learned from scratch. Perhaps even more astonishing with the balance with the singers, though all were on stage at the level, and often enough the orchestra was in full cry.
As regular attendees at Odyssey Opera productions have learned to expect, the singers brought on for this challenging score with its sometimes-confusing plot are all gifted vocally and dramatically; the individuals taking the roles of Helena, Aithra, Altair, and the Second Servant have all sung here before. The Menelaus, First Servant, Da-ud, and Hermione were making debuts. The most experienced of the “debuting” singers was Joyce Castle, the Omniscient Mussel, who has enjoyed almost a 50-year operatic career, especially at the New York City Opera, and who celebrates her 80th birthday in 2019.
Kirsten Chambers (soprano, Helena) seemed to be slightly covered at her first entrance, but she rose the the part throughout the first act and soared in the aria that opened the second act and through to the end. Tenor Clay Hilley, making his debut with the company as Menelaus) boasted a firm, heroic tenor that fully evoked a heroic figure from the Trojan War and projected his changing conditions of passion, confusion, rage, and determination. Katrina Galka (soprano, Aithra) was a moving figure in the complex plot, which she projected with a bright soprano with clear diction that made the plot as understandable as it could be made.
The two servants (soprano and alto, Sara Duchovnay and Erica Brookhyser) were called upon especially the narrate the account of the offstage battle in Act II; the clarity of their enunciation was especially welcome. Altair (baritone Ryne Cherry) and Da-ud (tenor Won Whi Choi) proved entirely suitable for their smaller parts. And high school senior Leah Kazuko held fast to the small part of Helen and Menelaus’s child.
The strong line-up of singers gave a welcome opportunity to feel Strauss’s full orchestral power in person and full-blast.
There is one more “Helen” opera coming up in this Odyssey Opera season—and it is the one that Strauss no doubt thought of when he considered trying to enter the world of operetta with Hofmannsthal’s libretto: the most delicious of all Helens: Jacques Offenbach’s Parisian operetta, La belle Hélène, which thumbs its nose at classical literature with comic lyrics and bright, vivacious music. Odyssey will perform it in English translation June 14th and 16th at the Huntington Avenue Theater.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.