An opera full of glories — and oddities
Obscure operas are legion, unjustly obscure operas rather less common. But Richard Strauss’s 1928 “Die Ägyptische Helena” (“The Egyptian Helen”), to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmansthal, is an opera obscure for understandable yet strangely compelling reasons. Despite occasional revivals, the piece has never gained a foothold in the repertoire; Friday’s concert version by Odyssey Opera, under Gil Rose’s direction, was its Boston premiere. The performance gave full, forceful rein to the work’s glories and oddities.
Hofmansthal’s bricolage of myth and invention follows Helena — Helen of Troy — sailing home with her husband Menelas after the Trojan War’s end; when a sentient, all-knowing mussel (the opera’s most infamous oddity) announces that Menelas is about to kill his adulterous wife, the sorceress Aithra diverts the ship to her island with a storm, then tries to placate Menelaus with a memory-wiping potion and a story that the Helen who ran off with Paris was a phantom, while the real Helen was been holed up in an Egyptian castle. The potion backfires, leaving Menelas constantly reliving the traumas of her betrayal and his killing of Paris. Helen finally realizes the true solution: a potion not of forgetfulness, but of complete remembrance, engendering a sudden change of heart in Menelas.
Strauss lavished on this plot some of his grandest music, leveraging every tool in his formidable arsenal into a roiling mass of late-Romantic sumptuosity. For this performance, a nearly 80-person orchestra was squeezed onto Jordan Hall’s stage and, more often than not, turned loose. The plushness benefited from sharp edges: bright outlines from the winds, bracing reinforcement from the brass. Rose’s conducting was vigorous—when his baton slipped his grasp in the middle of the first act, it barely dented the energy—and extroverted.
The singing was, for the most part, equally bold. Clay Hilley, as Menelas, was a powerhouse, a heldentenor of apparently indefatigable torque and point; some of his clarion notes may still be bouncing around Jordan Hall’s rafters. Katrina Galka sang Aithra with pert self-possession and a bright, steadfast ring. Baritone Ryne Cherry was Altair, a rival prince who sparks Menelaus’s jealousy; his unforced gravity provided depth to a cursory character. As Altair’s son, Da-ud, Won Whi Choi made the athletic most of his big tune. Joyce Castle brought veteran savvy, sharp diction, and some still-luminous tone to the Omniscient Mussel. Sara Duchovnay and Erica Brookhyser lent richness and clarity as Aithra’s servants; Leah Kazuko was credible and guileless as Hermione, Helena and Menelaus’s daughter. The chorus, directed by Mariah Wilson, embodied both a flock of chirping, chattering elves and a horde of infatuated soldiers.
As Helena, soprano Kirsten Chambers started off in tight voice; as the character gained more agency, her singing opened into the requisite Straussian silvery luster. It paralleled the course of the opera, which, for all its first-act bustle, takes time to get to its point. Its neglect, one suspects, has much to do with the way its plot and purpose are at odds, the former only coming into focus as the later gets more diffuse. After a while, the underlying tropes — Menelas’s shell-shocked disorientation, Helena’s alternating dismissal and dismay at the chaos in her wake, the promise and peril of a clean slate — make the Trojan War seem like a mirror the Great War, which left society profoundly altered and Strauss and Hofmansthal, old-fashioned men both, at odds with the times. No wonder Menelas keeps singing of his unfamiliar surroundings; no wonder Helena absolves both him and herself with the recovered past; no wonder the absolution is apotheosized with full, bombastic grandeur. One hears the opera’s creators pursuing a perhaps impossible goal: drawing meaning and redemption from a senseless cataclysm.
Richard Strauss: “Die Ägyptische Helena”
Presented by Odyssey Opera; Gil Rose, artistic director and conductor
At: Jordan Hall, Friday