Richard Strauss: Die Agyptische Helena (1928) REVISED

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

The least successful of the six Strauss-Hofmannstahl operas, everyone has their own opinion on this one. Some hate it, some hate part of it. Others love part of it, others love most of it but recognize that behind the dream-like score the libretto is seriously flawed by over-symbolism and a plot no one can make any sense of. Strauss loved the first act, (which is ironically considered the weaker of the two musically although the stronger dramatically), but thought that the second act probably should not have been written. In 1933, Strauss made changes to the second act, although these did not eliminate the problematic and confusing plot elements.

PLOT: A magic island near Egypt and the Atlas Mountains, 3200 years ago. Aithra (soprano), a sorceress and mistress of Poseidon, saves (thanks to a contralto Omniscient Sea Shell) Helen of Troy (soprano) from certain death and eventually convinces her husband Menelas (tenor) not to kill her by various means both magical and well, magical. Convincing Menelas that the “real” Helen has actually been waiting for him in the Atlas Mountains for the last decade, they are spirited away to an adventure involving an Arab sheik (!) named Altair (baritone) and his son Da-Ud (tenor).

I also get the impression that this would have worked better as a sequel to some opera about Poseidon featuring Aithra as a feature role. In this work, we would have the continued adventures of Aithra, having to fix Helen and Menelas on her own without Poseidon’s help as some kind of magical girl boss, sort of like a 1990s direct to video sequel of a blockbuster film.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7Fcm2u8Tjc

November 2019 Dress Rehearsal at La Scala (LINK BELOW):

Die Aegyptische Helena at La Scala (2019)

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 actually a combination of three themes (representing Helen, Menelaus, and Troy respectively, the last can come off as the orchestra deflating off-pitch) and is probably the most memorable thing you will find in the entire opera. It gives way to a dance-like theme (which returns, and seems to be a leitmotif for eroticism, or perhaps Aithra) and we meet Aithra, daughter of an unspecified king of Egypt, who pines for her lover, the sea god Poseidon, who is away. 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, even though Aithra is panicking about him being among the Ethiopians. Her servants offer her lotus juice, one of her few powers, which brings about forgetfulness, but she refuses it (this is an important plot point, although by act two the bickering about the philters of lotus juice will get ANNOYING). 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. This is vividly depicted by the Sea-Shell, which cries out to Aithra to do something. Aithra causes a storm which shipwrecks Helena and Menelas on her island. She walks off stage, and the hall is silent for a time. Effectively, this is the first twelve minutes or so of the opera.

17: Menelas confronts Helena as Aithra observes the two. It’s rather ornery until a patch of arioso for Helena * which manages to float a bit above the rest of the scene so far, for a little over a minute. The most interesting thing about there duet, otherwise, is the unison high C just as Aithra returns.

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 distract Menelas so he doesn’t kill Helena. They trick him into leaving the hall by making him believe that Paris is on the island and Menelas runs off to kill his rival.

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, but it serves the plot and Strauss in terms of having the two female leads team up and proclaiming that women are stronger and wiser in numbers. Helena is spirited away to be prepared as her own decoy for Menelas.

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 nine years earlier and that the defiant Helen is actually a phantom concocted by the gods to trick Paris. She, Aithra, will now bring the real Helen to him presently. During this ten minute sequence Strauss starts to reuse the five main themes he established at the beginning of the opera, but there is no new material really worth mentioning.

46, 49, 51, 60: The music builds up to something resembling a crescendo as the “real Helen” is revealed to Menelas *. Then there is a black out and then, after everything builds up again the elves bop about (Aithra, who thinks her plan is working out well, only has so much control over her employees, after all), and then Menelas gets a good arioso as he embraces the “real Helen” *. This all builds towards a choral-soloist crescendo (the best so far but still only *). Helen is worried about going to the Atlas Mountains, but Aithra tells her that they shall be magically transported there, no one will know who they are, and they will stay at a magical pavilion. Aithra also promises to give Helen a phial of lotus juice, a few drops of which will cause forgetfulness. She then sends the couple to a bed chamber to a wild symphony (traces of the Helen theme, less so Menelas and Troy). The Elves continue to laugh, but Aithra gently moves everyone out with a gentle sleepy symphony as the curtain falls *.

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 (and its finest passage) ** for Helen. The three main themes all return in various guises. It climaxes on a high C-sharp for the soprano.

4: Menelas arrives * and he engages in a musically low-temp but theatrically dramatic duet with Helen. She tries to give him lotus juice to make him forget everything (as he is starting to recall the past, especially after he sees his sword again) and Helen gives out that the lotus juice can only go so far in helping her. Menelas tells her to watch out, he might attack her without warning (the three themes, Helen, Menelas, Troy, all return).

11: 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. Altair has come because the three queens he serves have ordered him to give his kingdom to her (why? this is never explained). Eventually, Strauss quotes Salome during Da-Ud’s declaration of Helena’s beauty (which lasts all of 18 bars, infuriating Menelas) and a male chorus pops up, which is a bit different at least since the first act was basically just women and a tenor. Incidentally, Strauss originally wanted to write Da-Ud as a mezzo-soprano transvesti role, and the first conductor of the opera, Fritz Busch, told the composer than this brief arioso was a piece of trash, to which Strauss replied that every opera needed such a number to appeal to the public, which does not bode well for the rest of the score! No star. Altair is surprised that Helen, who he considers to be basically a goddess, should want her consort to be such an erratically angry man, but offers that Menelas and Da-Ud go out on a hunt together. Alone with Helen as Menelas dresses for the hunt, Da-Ud declares his undying love for Helen. She laughs him off, tell him to stay away from the fire. When he kneels before her, she laughs at him and he quickly runs off before Melenas returns fully armed. This scene serves little to no purpose at all other than to give Melenas time to change costumes.

22: Menelas’ arioso * as he goes off hunting with Da-Ud (rather turns into hunting of Da-Ud). It is dominated by a solemn and somewhat haunting variant of his theme (with traces of Helen and Troy as well). Helen realizes that her reconciliation with Menelas has not been successful: he does not believe that she is actually Helen at all, but a houri provided by Aithra.

28: The arrival of Aithra (as one of three ladies in waiting) * who goes over a box of magical goodies with Helena. For the next few minutes we get some lyrical passages from the orchestra which sound like the roar of the sea but not much else apart from constant reminders of the Helen theme. Helene reveals that she needs another potion, one which will restore Menelas’ memory of who she is, because right now he thinks she is a houri with whom he has cheated on the REAL Helen. Aithra has such a potion, and Helen takes it from her, but she doesn’t want her to use it.

38, 41: The opera drags on with a duet for the two women followed by more Altair (who reveals that Menelas might be poisoned at a banquet he plans on holding in honor of Helen) and something resembling an Arabian dance. This goes on for the next five minutes or so, although the only thing that really stands out is a rather traditional sounding series of high notes from Helen and Aithra *. A Wagnerian melody comes up in the strings * as Menelas returns having killed Da-Ud. This is followed by some chromatic brass work and then a blaring reprise of the Menelas theme.

48: The chorus (this time and for the first time in the opera mixed male and female at once) comes on *. Helen prepares the recollection potion, much to the annoyance of Aithra. It is followed by another patch of lyrical arioso from Menelas.

58: 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 (after he initially tries to kill her again). Helena gives a nice response, but all of this is dragging on for far too long and closely resembles Tristan und Isolde with Menelas preoccupied with poisoning himself with what is actually a magical philter. They both drink, of course, and then pretend to be in death mode to a reprise of the three leitmotivs and then near silence. It drags until suddenly Menelas gives up his anger **. Aithra comes on and the three express musically better sentiments than have been see before in the opera.

63: Altair attempts to attack the couple but is stopped by Aithra (who is one of the three queens to whom Altair owes allegiance) as she announces that Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelas, is about to arrive. 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 trio for the family. The orchestra collapses as Aithra pats herself on the back for doing a good turn for Helen (although probably for no one else, including the audience). Curtain.

COMMENTS:

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 and the word obtuse is probably the best to describe the narrative. 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 and deference Helena and Aithra receive from Altair, they are really just enforcing domination on each other since there are almost no men at all in the opera (Menelas’ is the only Y-chromosome present in Act One). 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 (at least he gets a leitmotif). There is a lot of sex (at least in theory), but none of it matters enough the way it does in Salome. More so, everything seems to be about how stupid men are and how smart women are, and female chauvinism, even when created by men, is still chauvinism. 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, and the story makes little to no sense at all. Why do Altair and Da-Ud suddenly appear in act 2 and why are they apparently Sheiks from 3000 years ago? They come off as nothing but annoying filler playing on a silent film fetish. 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? You built up this character and then it disappears! 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 four or five leitmotifs that are introduced at the beginning of the opera and they repeat, a lot. Overall, this opera is just a thing that exists. If it didn’t exist, I hardly think it would matter, except to fans of The Sheik. Also, act two (and the opera) is overlong by at least ten to fifteen minutes, which causes the entire work to drag and feel far longer than its barely over two hour running time. And Strauss trying to make up for all of this in the last ten minutes of the score, which are probably the best apart from the act two opener for Helen, is just not enough, even if the opera ends satisfactorily. Definitely a gamma.

SOURCE:

Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Strauss. Grange Books, London: 1992. Ch. 9. p.141, 143-151.

2002 New York performance:

4 responses to “Richard Strauss: Die Agyptische Helena (1928) REVISED”

  1. Your last post for a while? I hope the omniscient singing mollusc hasn’t frightened you off opera for good!

    Like

    1. No I just need to focus more on completing my degree, and although I love my blog it can be very distracting. Also in your list you forgot Bianca e G/Fernando but you included literally everything else Bellini ever wrote including the unfinished fragments of Ernani.

      Like

    1. This is just what I needed! My allergies have come back with spring and this is a good laugh! 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: