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A Rare Helen Debuts in Boston

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The composer.

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 conductor

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.

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4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Mr. Ledbetter mentions that the only previous Boston performance of music from The Egyptian Helen occurred in 1981. However, I believe Leontyne Price, with Erich Leinsdorf and the BSO performed and recorded scenes from the opera in the 1960s.

    Comment by George Hungerford — April 26, 2019 at 9:42 am

  2. OK. The performance was great; Strauss is overwhelming–as usual but that’s the Nature of the Beast. (I must admit Ariadne (twice) and Salome (once) are the only Strauss operas I’ve seen staged; I also support Odyssey with money). Nothing wrong with the performance–but–this is a work that really needs staged but has “story problems”; interesting to read here that it’s NOT a play by one of the Big Three supposedly. I found myself wondering at times which character was singing and had to puzzle that out; supertitles have really helped us out in keeping track of that. Then there was having to figure out what was supposed to be happening while the concert performers were just standing there. Lastly, I think unfortunately we can blame Strauss/von Hoffmansthal for the artistic pacing problems in the story in Act II because I saw the same effect in Ariadne from the same team. I know we shouldn’t blame composers for spending too much time on, say, Gilda in Rigoletto but I have a fear that in the artistic “ether” that 5 minutes too much may have come from “Luisa Miller” where 5 more minutes is needed in the last act as the miller’s daughter dies way too fast. (OK so I say “Un Ballo in Maschera” is perfect Verdi; you don’t want anything cut–or added!) Hint Hint: somebody do this one on stage! BTW: Odyssey’s Next Season: You might Lose Your Head over it with its Henry VIII theme; lots of Good Stuff!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 27, 2019 at 9:05 pm

  3. BYSO did Un Ballo– semi-staged in Sanders– a few years ago. Maybe not quite up there with their Falstaff or Rigoletto productions, but quite effective, as their Verdi has tended to be.

    Comment by Camilli — April 28, 2019 at 9:36 am

  4. Sorry, that’s Die Aegyptische Helena that should be staged. Unfortunately the required forces are huge and perhaps another work is more Worthy–but one can wish.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 28, 2019 at 4:19 pm

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