Die Ägyptische Helena, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

This little-performed opera by Richard Strauss received a wonderful staging by Marco Arturo Marelli and his team. Marelli had read Strauss’s performance notes in the archives of the Vienna Staatsoper, where the composer alters and withdraws some of the music, and in following these notes he made welcome cuts in von Hofmannsthal’s over-complicated libretto. The upshot of the story, written shortly after the First World War, is the reuniting of husband and wife after years of separation due to war. A man’s difficulty in dealing with life after conflict is brought into focus here by Menelas’s desire to kill his wife, Helen as he brings her home from Troy. However, in this story Helen has allegedly been in Egypt throughout the ten years of war, and the Helen that Paris took to Troy was a fake conjured up by the gods. The existence of two Helens confuses Menelas after he arrives in Egypt — he cannot distinguish the real from the fake, and nor indeed can the audience. The entire scheme is presided over by an Egyptian sorceress Aithra, who in this production keeps a high-class brothel in Cairo. She gets intelligence on the coming of Menelas and his wife, and of her own lover Altair, from a clever and all seeing mussel, represented here as a colourful fortune teller. Altair’s son Da-ud is in love with Helen, and is killed by Menelas, who then reunites with his wife, partly with the help of a drink potion, and later through the magical appearance of their daughter Hermione.

In this performance, Ricarda Merbeth sang strongly in the very difficult part of Helena, as did Robert Chafin as Menelas, despite suffering from a cold. Laura Aikin was terrific as Aithra, and the other women all sang well. Morten Frank Larsen as Altair had no voice beyond a very limited range of pitch — how astonishing that he was cast as Jochanaan in Salome — but Burkhard Ulrich sang well as Da-ud. The sets were glorious, with a rotating stage that provided two separate rooms, for two separate Helens, and the costumes for Aithra and her ladies were elegant and sexy. What a shame that Helena herself appeared at the start, and at the end, in a frumpy long skirt and matching jacket, looking like a member of the local rotary club, rather than a mistress of the universe. Menelas was clothed in a greatcoat, presumably to emphasize the First World War imagery.

Andrew Litton conducted this difficult music with restraint and understanding that gave particular coherence to the second act. Altogether worth seeing again, but this is an opera where one needs to understand the story before reading the surtitles.

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