Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
PLOT: A magic island near Egypt and the Atlas Mountains, 3000 years ago. Aithra, a sorceress, saves Helen of Troy from certain death and eventually convinces her husband Menelas not to kill her by various means both magical and well, magical.
LOOK OUT FOR:
Act 1: The Island Palace of the sorceress Aithra. (63 minutes)
2: The opera begins with…the theme music from Mysterious Island? This is the only memorable theme you will find in the entire opera and it gets repeated a lot. Anyway it passes very quickly and we meet Aithra, daughter of an unspecified king of Egypt. It all just sort of floats about until the Omniscient Sea-Shell * starts to spout out its contralto prophecies about how Poseidon still loves her. The Sea-Shell gets better as the scene continues, especially as it goes about telling everyone that Helena and Menelas’ ship is near by and that he plans to kill her. Aithra causes a storm which shipwrecks Helena and Menelas on her island.
17: Menelas confronts Helena as Aithra observes the two. It’s rather ornery until a patch of arioso for Helena *.
25: After things get very dangerous between the couple Aithra pops in and gives us an odd song *. She brings on a quartet of Elves to torture Menelas so he doesn’t kill Helena. They take him away.
29: A patch of arioso for Aithra turns into a duet of sorts with Helena in which they hatch a plan to save the latter from certain death *. It’s all sugary sweet and not much else.
35: The Omniscient Sea-Shell can be heard again here * briefly. Helena is spirited away.
37: There is a return of the MI theme as Menelas returns *. The elves pop in again and Aithra persuades Menelas to believe that the real Helena has been put to sleep in her father’s castle in the Atlas Mountains. She will have him spirited away to her.
46, 49, 51: The music builds up to something resembling a crescendo *. Then there is a black out and then, after everything builds up again the elves bop about, and then Menelas gets a good arioso *. This all builds towards a choral-soloist crescendo (the best so far but still only *).
60: The Elves laugh *. Aithra coloraturas them out as the act ends.
ACT 2: A Pavillon in the Atlas Mountains. (67 minutes)
0: The act begins with the only real set piece aria in the entire opera * for Helena. It climaxes on a high C-sharp.
4: Menelas arrives * and he engages in a low-temp duet with Helena.
11, 15: The arrival of Altair, sort of a Sheik figure before such a thing probably existed (given the opera is set around 3000 and not 300 years ago). It isn’t all that interesting but a * just the same. Eventually, Strauss quotes Salome during Da-Ud’s declaration of Helena’s beauty and a male chorus pops up, which is a bit different.
22: Melenas’ climatic arioso * as he goes off hunting with Da-Ud (rather turns into hunting of Da-Ud).
28: The arrival of Aithra * who goes over a box of magical goodies with Helena. For the next few minutes we get some lyrical passages from the orchestra but not much else.
34: A duet followed by more Altair and something resembling an Arabian dance *. This goes on for the next five minutes or so.
41: A nobler melody comes up in the strings * as Menelas returns having killed Da-Ud.
48: The chorus (this time and for the first time in the opera mixed male and female at once) comes on *. Is followed by another patch of lyrical arioso from Menelas.
54: The Helena-Menelas duet * is followed by yet another bit from Menelas after he attempts suicide by drinking a “poison” and falls back in love with his wife. Helena gives a nice response.
62: Altair attempts to attack the couple but is stopped by Aithra in the first entirely interesting bit of music in the entire opera *. A sweet melody descends as Helena and Menelas’ daughter Hermione arrives and the family is reunited. A march strikes up and then dies away followed by one last duet from the couple. The orchestra collapses
Die Agyptische Helena has everything that made Strauss both a great and a dreadful opera composer. The libretto is probably better than the music, although both seem incredibly limited in scope. Menelas is by far the largest tenor role in any of the six Strauss-Von Hofmannsthal operas, but this does not make him their best tenor part. Although there are a few moments where Menelas is able to shine a little, much of the time I find the tenor struggling (and baritonal) surrounded by up to ten female soloists and an all female chorus. Although the storyline offers an opportunity to have female characters greatly empowered (they basically control the entire scenario) apart from tricking Menelas and the homage Helena and Aithra receive from Altair, they are really just enforcing domination on each other. The soprano parts (all seven of them) are quite lovely, but have little substance to them, although Strauss does create distinctive musical worlds for Helena and Aithra as well as Menelas to a lesser extent. There is a lot of sex (at least in theory), but none of it matters enough the way it does in Salome. Similarly to Ariadne auf Naxos there really isn’t a plot here so much as a small number of situations and entrances. There are far too many WTF moments in this opera. Why do Altair and Da-Ud suddenly appear in act 2 and why are they apparently Sheiks from 3000 years ago? What is up with all the potions? And what the heck is that Omniscient Sea-Shell? Yeah it is sort of cool, and I love contraltos, but seriously, a seashell, come again? And what happens to it after its two brief scenes? As for the music, there are snatches of good melodies that float about but nothing ever lasts long enough for it to really matter in the long term. There are two leitmotifs that are introduced at the beginning of the opera and they repeat, a lot. Definitely a gamma.