Even in the world of unbelievable opera plots The Egyptian Helen has special distinction
with its convoluted story including four elves, a "mysterious Mussel"
with power to see and know everything in the world, and two potions
-- one to help you forget, the other to help you remember. This opera in two acts with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal was
premiered in Dresden June 6, 1928, with the American premiere taking place
Metropolitan Opera Nov. 6, 1928. Based loosely on Greek legend, the
opera is about King Menelas and his wife of ten years, Helen of Troy, whose
beauty and adultery caused the
Trojan War. Menelas killed her lover, Paris, and decided
that he must also kill her for her unfaithfulness to make amends for the
thousands of deaths because of her actions. The "mysterious Mussel"
informs Aithra, an Egyptian
sorceress, that Menelas is about to kill Helena, and Aithra decides to
She causes a shipwreck that brings Menelas and Helene to her palace. Aithra
admires Helena and through her magic restores Helena to her original beauty
in an attempt to reunite her with her angered husband. Aithra gives Menelas a
potion so he will forget his wife's infidelities. The potions
don't prove to be effective; still at the conclusion of the opera love defeats all
obstacles as Menelas, Helena and their daughter Hermione are reunited as a happy
family. Preposterous stuff, indeed!
However, for this story Strauss has written some of
his most opulent music. The score requires a dramatic soprano and a heldentenor for the
two leading roles -- a difficult requirement for opera houses -- and the role
of Aithra is also very demanding. The static plot
isnít the kind of opera fare most audiences find appealing -- it
is hard to find much to admire in Helena's character, and Menelas is at best a
cardboard figure. With all these factors it is not surprising that this
opera isn't performed very often.
There was much excitement in Vienna in 1970 when the State Opera decided to
revive The Egyptian Helen, which had not been presented in that historic house since
1936. The new production was designed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle and the cast
featured British soprano Gwyneth Jones who had become popular in Vienna in
operas by Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. Jess Thomas, at the peak of his
career and known for Strauss and Wagner, was Menelas. The other major role,
Aithra, was Mimi Coertse. Josef Krips, considered to be an ideal conductor
of music of Strauss, was on the podium. The performances delighted audiences;
critics were mixed: two headlines ("Episodes in the life of an old lady called
Helena" and "Attempts at the resuscitation of Helena."
We now have this
audio document of the event, recorded in splendid stereo by the Austrian Radio. In
most ways it is superb. However, after her first few years of public
performance, Gwyneth Jonesí voice began to deteriorate; this had happened
as early as 1970. She has the power and stamina for the scoreís difficult tessitura, and even Kripsí leisurely tempi for the famed second
act opening aria
are no problem for her. It is being very kind to say that much of her singing is uneven
with a decided unpleasant wobble; still there is no
question that she is making a strong case for the music. Jones is a bit fresher in voice
here than she was in her 1979 recording with Antal
Dorati conducting (London 430 381, out of print). How unfortunate that Leonie
Rysanek (whose stunning 1955 Munich
performance -- available on Orfeo d'Or 424 962 -- set the standard for the
role) didnít participate in this
Vienna production. Jess Thomas is magnificent as Menelas, as is Mimi Coertse as
Aithra. Orchestral playing is rich and provides a luxurious cushion
for the singers. A few stage sounds only add to the sense of occasion.
But there is a problem. At the conclusion of the opera after Menelas,
Helena and Hermione are united, there is a four-line final duet for Menelas and
Fair winds, speed us on
our journey home!
Starry host, your sacred
Castle high, your ancient
door fling open,
thundering, to admit the
Inexplicably, this final duet is not on this recording. No texts are
provided, but the synopsis does refer to, "Menelas and Helena discover each
other again." In this recording apparently they do so in sign language.
Perhaps the missing duet will show up and future copies of the CDs will include
it. If you wish to hear The Egyptian Helen you do not have
much of a choice: either this recording with Gwyneth Jones' rather unpleasant
sounds, or the stunning Leonie Rysanek 1955 recording with its dated sonics.