Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mussel Tear

Die Äegyptische Helena
composed by Richard Strauss
directed by David Fielding
conducted by Fabio Luisi

Starring Deborah Voigt, Diana Damrau, Jill Grove & Torsten Karl
The Metropolitan Opera
March 15-April 7, 2007

Voight as Helen
Die Äegyptische Helena is not among Richard Strauss’s best operas, certainly not in the company of his masterpieces Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella and Capriccio. Still, with ravishing music fighting a head-scratchingly bizarre libretto, Helena (or The Egyptian Helen) deserves wider currency, since even lesser Strauss is still Strauss.

The Met now unveils its first production of Helena since 1928, mere months after the Dresden world premiere. The opera’s difficulty stems partly from its outlandish plot—Strauss’s usually trusty librettist Hugo Hofmannsthal outdid himself with this abstruse fantasy based on the mythical Helen of Troy story—and partly because not many sopranos can do justice to Strauss’s beautiful but vocally punishing score.

Helena isn’t tougher to perform than other Strauss operas; it’s just that sopranos who can sing Helena are busy doing more popular Strauss operas, so there’s little wiggle room for companies to develop a new production for a star soprano. Luckily, Deborah Voigt—who sang the title role in a 2002 concert with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein’s baton—wanted to do it and the Met (with help from a production originally staged in England) has obliged. Musically, this is mostly a first-rate affair, but the entire evening is dragged down by David Fielding’s ridiculous staging, which makes Hofmannsthal’s libretto a model of lucidity.

Fielding’s production—he also created the sets and costumes—is an astonishingly wrong-headed farrago that takes further liberties with an already nonsensical libretto so there’s even less for audiences to follow. Hofmannsthal already added much fantastical baggage to the story of Helen, the “most beautiful woman in the world,” who, after running off with Paris, attempts to save her faltering marriage to Menaleus: there’s a sort of oracle called the Omniscient Mussel, along with a potion that banishes characters’ moodiness, like a liquid Prozac. Fielding’s additions only confuse matters further.

Admittedly, since Helena is a fantasy, wide latitude should be given to any production, but Fielding’s excessive imagination paradoxically resulted in a visually uninspired and theatrically arrhythmic staging. The raked stage was flanked by tilted walls within which reside large doors; a giant-size silhouette of a running man carrying a sword and briefcase could be gleaned between the walls. The couple’s conjugal bed was possibly the largest onstage mattress ever; various minions (some not in the script) were dressed in white or black.

For the second half, Fielding’s bright idea was to “flip” the set and costumes so that those who wore black now wear white, the bed moved from the right to the left of the stage, the silhouette moved from left to right, and so on. It all palled pretty quickly, but at least the musicians and singers helped rescue Fielding from his own bad ideas.

Conductor Fabio Luisi led the Met Orchestra and chorus in a gripping reading of this troubled Strauss score; if a case can be made for the work’s stageworthiness—there’s much Straussian beauty in its two-plus hours of music, alongside sections of merely marking time—then Luisi held up the musical end.

Tenor Torsten Karl (Menaleus) could barely be heard over the orchestral din; we found out why at intermission, when we were informed that Karl could not continue due to illness. Michael Hendrick, his replacement, tried valiantly in the impossible task of conquering this meaty role with little preparation. Mezzo Jill Grove—who sang with Voigt in that ‘02 Helena—made the most of the Mussel’s varied musical menu.

As the sorceress Aithra, whose machinations set the convoluted plot in motion, Diana Damrau combined intelligence, true stage presence and a powerhouse coloratura voice to develop the most complete onstage character; as she showed in The Barber of Seville earlier this season, Damrau is a formidable singing actress, and was as compelling in Strauss as she was delightful in Rossini.

Voigt has that rare vocal instrument, and she effortlessly took Strauss’s endlessly soaring lines even further into the stratosphere. If not dramatically perfect, her voice is currently closest to the ideal sound currently for this role, and if she’s not my idea of “the most beautiful woman in the world,” she compensated with prodigious musical chops, even conquering the torturous aria that was cut in half at the Met premiere. (The Met is performing Strauss’s original score, not his 1933 revision.)

If Die Äegyptische Helena is not essential Strauss, it’s still worth attending this production, since Strauss’s music ultimately wins out over Fielding’s slight, sloppy staging.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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