Monday 25 October 2021

Mad, messy and marvellous: Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at Fulham Opera

Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena - Brian Smith Walters, Justine Viani - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Coughlan)
Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena - Brian Smith Walters, Justine Viani - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Coughlan)

Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena; Justine Viani, Brian Smith Walters, Luci Briginshaw, Oliver Gibbs, dir: Guido Martin-Brandis, cond: John Paul C Jennings; Fulham Opera at St John's Church, Fulham

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 October 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
only the work's second UK staging, Fulham Opera take on Strauss and Hofmannsthal's impossible opera and make it work brilliantly

Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena remains something of the ugly duckling amongst the operas he wrote with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Premiered in Dresden in 1928, it has rarely been performed in the UK. Having staged such enterprises as Wagner's Ring Cycle and The Mastersingers, as well as Verdi's Don Carlo, Fulham Opera has bravely moved on to Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena, only the work's second ever staging in the UK. When I chatted to Fulham Opera's musical director Ben Woodward in 2019 [see my interview], a possibility of Die ägyptische Helena was in the offing (Strauss operas were coming out of copyright), but what with the events of the last 18 months or so, it has taken the company sometime to create, yet they have remained firm of purpose and are presenting a total of six performances.

We caught Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at St John's Church, Fulham on Sunday 24 October 2021. The production was directed by Guido Martin-Brandis, the musical director was Ben Woodward and the performance we saw was conducted by John Paul C Jennings, the company's assistant conductor. Brian Smith Walters was Menelas, Justine Viani was Helena, Luci Briginshaw was Aithra, Oliver Gibbs was Altair, Dominic J Walsh was Da'ud and Ingeborg Borch was the Omniscient Mussel. Designs were by Alexander McPherson. The work was performed in Paul Plummer's arrangement for violin, cello, clarinet, horn, percussion and organ.

Die ägyptische Helena has a number of themes which seem to link to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's previous collaboration, Die Frau ohne Schatten - the fascination with magic, the intersection of the earthly and the otherworldly, the repairing of a fractured marital relationship. The centrepiece of the work is Menelas and Helena's relationship, just before the opera starts he is attempting to kill her in revenge for her leaving him for Paris, and throughout the opera Menelas seems to be suffering from PTSD. This is not helped by the interventions of the sorceress Aithra who creates a phantom Helena, and Menelas becomes confused (partly drug induced) by the real and the unreal. It is Helena who realised that reality is most important, and this leads to the opera's climax.

Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena - Justine Viani, Natasha Elliott, Luci Briginshaw - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Coughlan)
Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena - Justine Viani, Natasha Elliott, Luci Briginshaw - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Coughlan)

But, as in Ariadne auf Naxos, Hofmannsthal seems to have delighted in putting together seemingly incompatible worlds. So just as in Ariadne where there worlds of musical comedy (Zerbinetta) and serious opera (Ariadne) intersect but never interact, so in Die ägyptische Helena happenstance brings Aithra, Menelas and Helena together but their musical worlds are separate. Aithra, her elves and her Omniscient Mussel have a lighter, comic aspect which owes something to the fact that Strauss' initial idea for the opera was as a musical comedy. Then in Act Two, after Helena and Menelas successful (drug-induced) bliss for the second wedding-night descends into arguing again, the action is taken over by Altair the desert prince. The passion Altair and his son Da'ud feel for Helena is perhaps intended to echo, in Menelas, memories of the way the Trojan princes swooned over Helena and Menelas does indeed kill Da'ud thinking he is Paris, again. But in execution Altair and Da'ud are pure musical comedy, their eruption into the opera feels as if we have suddenly moved into Sigmund Romberg's 1926 musical The Desert Song

Guido Martin-Brandis' production took all this admirably seriously, there was no irony and no attempt to add metaphysics or symbolism to the production. What Martin-Brandis did was tell the story with remarkable clarity, a superbly admirable characteristic in a staging of such a rare opera with a confused plot. He and designer Alexander McPherson made imaginative use of the limited staging area provided by St John's, complete with immovable altar. So we had lots of billowing fabric, amazing costumes with some very 1930s period style, including the imaginative incarnation of the Omniscient Mussel (played with wry humour by Ingeborg Borch) as a sort of radio star. 

The result was wonderfully engaging, and in the performances of the two principals, Brian Smith Walters as Menelas and Justine Viani as Helena, completely riveting. It was superbly performed all round, but never quite convinced me that this was a dramatically coherent work, and I could not help feeling that there was a substantial one-act opera to be had in this rather messy two-act work. Fulham Opera were giving the UK premiere of Strauss' 1933 revision of the piece, which includes simplifying Act Two but you felt he could have gone further.

Central to the evening was tenor Brian Smith Walters in the role of Menelas (one of the roles which gave Strauss the reputation of not liking the tenor voice). Smith Walters, however, brought a touching sense of realism to his portrayal, that Menelas was suffering from something like PTSD, could only function with his wife when drugged and for much of the time was existing in a separate mental universe to everyone else. So Smith Walter's made Menelas' interruptions seem part of a continuous, yet distinct narrative, and he sang with heroic firmness and amazing stamina so that the final reconciliation was indeed rapturous.

As Helena, Justine Viani seemed to be channelling Strauss' Ariadne, no bad model and I would love to hear Viani in that role. As Helena she was quite grand, yet voluptuous and sexy when needed, with lots of superbly long musical line, finely sculpted. You felt as if Viani could produce this lovely tone forever and like Smith Walters, she seemed tireless. Dramatically it was Act Two that was important as Helena moves from her rapture of her second wedding night to the realisation the drug-induced bliss was not the answer, they had to dig deep and face reality.

Luci Briginshaw was delightful as Aithra, bringing a lighter edge to her performance and showing admirable flexibility of voice. Aithra is not entirely a nice character, her magical meddling really only succeeds in complicating matters and the ending is taken entirely out of her hands. But Briginshaw has a wonderfully mobile face, so that we understood the complications of character as a complement to the music. She was ably supported by two servants, Christine Buras and Natasha Elliott in important secondary roles, and a quintet of magical elves (Maggie Cooper, Corinne Hart, Rebecca Moulton, Donya Rafati and Rosalind O'Dowd) who succeeded in being delightful, funny and malicious, as well as helping manipulate a production that relied purely on manual labour with no automated scenery.

Oliver Gibbs made a manful effort to make Altair a serious character, but the simple fact of taking this musical comedy idea serious led to something of a mis-match and frankly, his initial eruption into proceedings had something of a Monty Python air. Musically, there were no complaints at all and Gibbs sang with fine, firm, resonant tones. He was ably supported by Dominic J Walsh as his son, Da'ud, who had his own love-struck scene with Helena (with Viani delightfully showing Helena hiding her amusement at the approaches of this boy). Gibbs and Walsh were supported by a chorus of male slaves, Kester Guy-Briscoe, Jack Stone, Robin Whitehouse and Graham Wheeler.

Ingeborg Borch gave the Omniscient Mussel a strong sense of humour, yet sang her interruptions with rich, dark tones which rather suggested the way Erda tends to interrupt things in Wagner's Ring Cycle.

That the opera was performed in Paul Plummer's reduction for just six instruments meant that the singers did not have to compete with Strauss' rather full, large-scale orchestration. The music for the work is very restless, the orchestral writing extremely busy and Plummer's version was highly imaginative, though I was not taken with his use of organ (an electric instrument), as I rather find that organs tend to dominate the sound when used in this context. Conductor John Paul C Jennings displayed an admirable feeling for the work, allowing the complex music to unfold yet keeping things moving. This is a complex score, with lots of moving parts and it was to Jennings and the performers' credit that the results were so musically satisfying.

This was an amazing enterprise, daring and imaginative, the company brought Strauss and Hofmannsthal's opera to life. If there were limitations, then those were almost entirely due to the work's creators. In performance, everyone thrilled by their sympathy with the music and the way they brought the complex dramaturgy to life. Die ägyptische Helena still deserves a full-scale London production, but until then Fulham Opera's performance was a superb way to get to know this rare work.

This review also appears in OperaToday.

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