Die ägyptische Helena

Helen by Gustave Moreau

Helen, by Gustave Moreau

Die ägyptische Helena

Die ägyptische Helena, Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, April 2016. Director Marco Arturo Marelli, Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin conducted by Andrew Litton. Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Following on from Strauss’ well-loved operas, Salomé and Elektra, Deutsche Oper continued their five-day mini-Strauss fest offering a rarity with Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helena), a two-act opera set to a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal who, for inspiration, sourced material from Euripides and Stesichorus.

Strauss wrote the title-role for the celebrated Czech-born soprano Maria Jeritza but creating quite a stir at the time, the Dresden management refused to pay the large fee she demanded and, therefore, cast Elisabeth Rethberg instead as Helena of Troy. But Jeritza (who earned herself the nickname of ‘The Moravian Thunderbolt’) was long associated with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera and eventually created the part in these two great houses.

At the opera’s première at the Semperoper in June 1928 it was met with a cool reception but in this production by Marco Arturo Marelli it has broken new ground and, indeed, found a new audience wanting more judging by the thunderous curtain-call. The production was superb from start to finish. Two hours of thorough enjoyment! The score is as bright, dramatic and dynamic as any other Strauss work.

The storyline centres upon Menelaus (king of Sparta and the younger son of Atreus, king of Mycenae) who loses Helena to Paris but the Gods, thoughtfully, substituted an exact likeness of the living Helena to fool him while hiding the real one in a castle on the slopes of the Atlas Mountains. She remains there waiting for Menelaus to awaken her while the wraith lurks in an adjoining room.

The sorceress Aithra – who acts as a type of marriage-guidance counsellor – duly sorts things out, ably assisted by the oracle-like Omniscient Mussel (sung by Ronnita Miller) who interrupts the proceedings at will offering all sorts of advice, prophecies and so forth. The Mussel, for instance, tells of a ship on which the most beautiful woman in the world, Helena of Troy, is about to be murdered by her husband, Menelaus. To save her, Aithra conjures up a storm to shipwreck the passengers, who soon make their way ashore finding refuge at Aithra’s palace.

Helena has been trying to save her marriage for sometime but Menelaus cannot forgive her for her betrayal with Paris at the start of the Trojan War. Bitterly, he has prevented their daughter, Hermione, from knowing her own mother. Menelaus has another attempt at murdering his wife but the sight of her beauty makes him hesitate. To ensure that he doesn’t do the deed, Aithra invokes a team of elves to torment him and they make him believe that his rival, Paris is present and he rushes out to confront the spectre. Her magic then helps Helena to regain her original youthful beauty and a lotus drink banishes all her anxiety.

The role of Helena fell to Ricarda Merbeth who revelled in the part while Stefan Vinke played Menelaus in a rough-and-ready way looking very much like a gangster. Indeed, the opera’s prologue featured a round from a Kalashnikov while Helena and Menelaus were seen arguing the toss over matters with guns at the ready. Laura Alkin put in a superb performance as the sorceress, Aithra.

The trio of leads were exceptionally strong and they delivered the goods in a forthright and authoritative manner in a magnificent and colourful staging by Marelli while Dagmar Niefind’s strikingly-coloured costumes equated to the pastel and bright colours of the intricately-designed hi-tech set housing a revolving stage and revolving scenery plus a hydraulic platform.

The set suitably connected the trio of scenes ranging from the Trojan War to Aithras’ present-day world where she is comfortably off in her 19th-century faded (but elegant) colonial-designed palace overlooking a picturesque desert landscape.

The final scene was wrapped up in the world of fantasy and make-believe centred upon the matrimonial chamber decked out in a zany collection of brightly-coloured furniture turned upside down and inside out adorned with beautiful wall-hangings and colour-washed palm trees where the couple’s second wedding night (Zweite Brautnacht) unfolds in harmony, sweetness and love.

But not quite! Menelaus on awakening still mistrusts his senses and his wife soothes him with his usual glass of lotus juice but as he catches sight of his sword it revives jarring memories. Is this woman real or an illusion? Desert horsemen appear (portrayed by a spectacular piece of video footage echoing in my mind Lawrence of Arabia driving madly through the desert) while Altair, prince of the mountains (sung by Derek Welton), bows before Helena, offering her gifts while his son, Da-ud (Andrew Dickinson), joins in praising her beauty.

The scene reminds Menelaus of a Trojan celebration in honour of Helena and he is still trying hard to conceal his jealousy as Altair and Da-ud invite him to join a hunting party. Bidding farewell to Helena and still uncertain of her identity, he leaves for the hunt. Aithra appears as one of the serving girls and cautions Helen that one of the vials she has packed contains a potion of forgetfulness but the other a potion of recollection. Against Aithra’s strong advice, Helen declares that recollection will be necessary to save her marriage.

At a sign from Helena, the maidservants withdraw when Altair returns, paying bold court to her and inviting her to a banquet in her honour. Even when word arrives that Menelaus has killed Da-ud during the hunt, Altair continues his suit. He steps away when the youth’s body is brought in, followed by Menelaus, who remains confused, thinking it’s Paris he has killed. Again defying Aithra’s counsel, Helena orders the potion of recollection prepared as time for the feast draws near.

However, Menelaus imagines that the real Helena has died and resolves to join her in death: the Helen he sees before him is surely the wraith. But when he takes what he thinks is the potion of death he sees the dead Helena as the living one and both are united. Altair and his cohorts seize and separate the couple but Aithra reveals a phalanx of Poseidon’s soldiers who are escorting the couple’s child, Hermione. Recognising Aithra the sorceress, Altair bows to her power and presence and in this production she jumps into his arms in a fit of wild passion while Hermione finds herself reunited with her parents. Hopefully, everyone lived happily ever after!

Helen and Menelaus, Louvre

Helen and Menelaus, Louvre

Tony Cooper has been working across the field of publishing and the arts for a great number of years, writing mainly for Archant newspaper group based in his home city of Norwich. Nowadays, he focuses on opera and classical music and he greatly admires the works of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner


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