Notes and Editorial Reviews
As I wrote, when I reviewed the live recording of the opera under Gérard Korstan on Dynamic, Die ägyptische Helena is generally considered the weakest of the Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaborations. It is performed only slightly more often than the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos and their biblical ballet, Josephs Legend. There have been at least five recordings of the opera released over the years, a studio performance conducted by Antal Doráti, and live readings by Keilbreth, Krips, Korstan, and now Botstein. The opera has had consistently bad press from the time of its premiere in 1928, in part for Hofmannsthal’s libretto, which continues his rather mystical exploration of the dynamics of marriage and male-female
relationships within a mortal/divine or magical dialectic. Helena and Menelas, returning from the destruction of Troy, are shipwrecked on the island home of the sorceress (and lover of Poseidon), Aithra. Aithra has an oracle’s window on the world in the form a magic seashell, the Omniscient Mussel. It reports that Menelas is about to kill his unfaithful wife. The implication is that Aithra is motivated in part by curiosity about the most beautiful woman on earth, and, in fact, much of the second act is devoted to the frequently disastrous effect Helena’s beauty has on the men with whom she comes in contact. Aithra gives Menelas a magic potion and makes him believe that his wife has been safely chaste for the last several years on her island while a spirit Helena presided at Troy. In many ways, the opera is about how seductive beauty can be, even to its owner. As a result of her own growing humanity, Helena herself decides that Menelas must be given the choice of killing her or accepting her return unimpeded. This leads to the final union of the older, and presumably wiser, couple and their daughter as they literally ride off into the sunset. Leon Botstein, in his notes, suggests that the deeply bourgeois Strauss was, in fact, at home in these mystical doings, but I wonder. It is not entirely beside the point that Strauss’s greatest operatic successes are Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Arabella, about real people in real situations. However magnificent the music for Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and the present opera, there is a certain remove to the characters, something that one does not find in the divine/mystical characters of Wagner, for example, and I suspect it is this very lack of a human connection that has kept audiences at bay. That Hofmannsthal was a profound thinker is not really in question, but his decision to explore that on the operatic stage, especially given his chosen collaborator, makes some of his deepest utterances sometimes hard going for his audience.
Strauss himself came in for a lot of criticism of the work. Far from his announced desire to be the new Offenbach, the entirely appropriate weight he brought to his very un-Offenbach subject matter makes this pretty much his most strenuous opera besides Elektra. Helena abounds in beautiful music, and as Botstein correctly points out, within his largely consonant framework Strauss uses a very advanced harmonic palate, like Schreker and Korngold, frequently abandoning functional harmony for considerable stretches, something that is not immediately apparent within the gorgeous wash of orchestral and vocal sound. He revised the work in 1933, mostly deleting, but also composing some new music for act II. Leon Botstein conducts a lovely, affectionate performance of the 1928 version, which seems to be the preferred score these days. Like the Doráti on Decca, it is also complete. Of the three recordings of the 1928 score, Botstein has by far the best orchestra, something that cannot be underestimated in Strauss. Doráti’s hard-pressed Detroit Symphony was at the beginning of its resurgence, while Gérard Korstan’s Italian forces are completely outclassed. Botstein also sets entirely reasonable tempos, avoiding the occasional scrambles of the supercharged Korstan performance. On the other hand, one of the ways in which one can spot a great operatic conductor is the way he or she supports the voices. I was playing the Ozawa recording of Elektra for a friend who is a professional musician who particularly noted how Ozawa carefully got the orchestra out of the potentially over-parted Hildegard Behren’s way without ever making it seem he was holding back in any way. This is a type of finesse that Botstein either cannot manage or in which he has no interest. Fortunately, since the orchestra is recorded with great presence—the voices less consistently so—he has a sufficiently weighty cast that can pretty much hold its own.
The opera, as has been noted before, is a bear to cast. Helena was written for Maria Jeritza, and calls for a dramatic soprano of immense radiance. Deborah Voigt pretty much sweeps the competition, which includes Rysanek, Jones (twice), and Binstrubyte. Her voice is silvery, in Strauss’s preferred manner, but it is also enormous—allowing her to ride the orchestra at will. She is also a gifted actress, and her resources of charm come fully into play. That this is a one-off performance is even more remarkable. Virtually the only complaint is at some awkward transitioning into her bottom register, something that is minor in any case, and completely forgivable in the context of a live performance. Menelas is probably the most sheerly murderous tenor role that Strauss ever wrote. Longer than Bacchus, the Kaiser, or Apollo, the role keeps the tenor spending much of his time singing flat out against the vast orchestra. Carl Tanner is very good, and were he more consistently on mike, he would be even better. He is heavily taxed by the strenuous writing for what seems to have been Strauss’s least favorite voice type, but he acquits himself well, some slightly gritty tones at the bottom aside. Failing Ben Heppner taking him on, this is probably the best Menelas we are likely to hear. Celena Shafer brings more weight to Aithra than most—the coloratura, somewhat similar to the requirements of Die Frau’s Kaiserin, usually tempts casting the part on the light side. Shafer’s voice is not quite different enough from Voigt’s, but hers is a lovely performance, always dramatically alive and—some scrambling aside—very well sung. Jill Grove, listed as a mezzo, brings a contralto’s richness to Mussel’s pronouncements. She is appropriately distant—she was in a third tier box at the performance—but recorded with sufficient immediacy that you never lose her. Eric Cutler’s lyrically oriented tenor contrasts well with Tanner, and he has the power to ride the climaxes of the ardent, doomed Da-ud. Christopher Robertson is okay in a part that really calls for the sort of power and elegance of a Jose van Dam or a René Pape.
As noted, the orchestra is recorded with great presence, the voices somewhat inconsistently. Tanner almost always seems slightly off mike, for example, while Tamara Mesic, as the First Maid, seems to be sitting on it; she frequently dominates the scenes she is in by how vividly she is recorded. The recording comes with interesting notes, and the libretto is in three languages. This is now the recording of choice, one not to be missed by the lovers of the byways of late Strauss.
John Story, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Die ägyptische Helena, Op. 75 by Richard Strauss
Deborah Voigt (Soprano),
Carl Tanner (Tenor),
Celena Shafer (Soprano),
Jill Grove (Mezzo Soprano),
Christopher Robertson (Baritone),
Eric Cutler (Tenor),
Tamara Mesic (Soprano),
Elizabeth Batton (Mezzo Soprano),
Sharla Nafziger (Soprano),
Kathlene Ritch (Soprano),
Teresa Buchholz (Mezzo Soprano),
B.J. Fredricks (Mezzo Soprano)
American Symphony Orchestra,
Concert Chorale of New York
Written: 1923-1927; Germany
Date of Recording: 10/06/2002
Venue: Live Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC
Length: 130 Minutes 8 Secs.
Notes: Ver: 1928
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