Monday 4 October 2021

'The more light-heartedly you can handle this, the better it would be' - Strauss, Hofmannsthal and Die ägyptische Helena

Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at La Scala, Milan in 2019 with Ricarda Merbeth as Helena
Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at La Scala, Milan in 2019 with Ricarda Merbeth as Helena

Despite his virtues as an opera librettist, concision and clarity of plot were not Hugo von Hofmannsthal's strong points. His ideas behind Die Frau ohne Schatten, the collaboration with Richard Strauss which premiered at the Vienna State Opera in 1919, arose out of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, but the resulting opera became one of the largest and taxing in the repertoire, with performances developing into real occasions. The strange thing is that their subsequence collaboration, Die ägyptische Helena (1928), which has a similarly complex mythic plot and challenging solo parts, is so rarely performed that rather than being an occasion, the performance becomes a red-letter day. 

Whilst Covent Garden managed to put on concert performances of Die ägyptische Helena (at the Royal Festival Hall in 1998 with Deborah Voigt as Helena), the palm for creating the first British staging of the opera goes to Garsington Opera who staged it in 1997 (with Susan Bullock as Helena). Now the opera is getting a second UK staging, as Fulham Opera bravely assault the peak of Strauss and von Hofmannsthal's complexity. And they will be giving the UK premiere of Strauss' 1933 revision.

Perhaps one of the problems with the opera is that the impetus behind it was a bit mixed, there were elements of lightness about the piece, Strauss loved Hofmannsthal's first act and  Hofmannsthal was delighted, "Tell yourself that you mean to handle it as if it were merely to be an operetta, it’s bound to be by Richard Strauss at the end." Yet the vocal writing is taxing and Helena's husband Menelas is reputed to be one of the most ungrateful male roles that Strauss wrote. Fulham Opera will be using a reduced orchestration which should mean that the more intimate elements of the piece should come over. Fundamentally, if you overlook the sorceress Aithra and her omniscient mussel, the piece is about the attempts by Helena and Menelas to repair their marriage following the Trojan War.

In fact, following Die Frau ohne Schatten, Strauss had wanted to write a lighter work, and he decided to use a misunderstanding in his own marriage as the basis for a comedy. Hofmannsthal was horrified, that an artist would put his own life on the stage! Yet, Strauss had done that with orchestral works such as Symphonia Domestica, and for Intermezzo he simply went it alone and the work premiered in 1923.

Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at Deutsche Oper, Berlin in 2016 with Ricarda Merbeth as Helena  (Photo: Marcus Lieberenz)
Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at Deutsche Oper, Berlin in 2016 with Ricarda Merbeth as Helena  (Photo: Marcus Lieberenz)

But he wanted to work with Hofmannsthal again, and the result was Die ägyptische Helena. At its heart, the opera has an alternative Greek tradition that the Helen of Troy who went to Troy was not the real Helen, but a shadow figure created by the Gods. Around this Hofmannsthal weaves his complex fantasy, involving lots of invented characters and a plot that moves from the lighter in Act One to intensely philosophical. At times, Hofmannsthal’s invented elements, surrounding Helena and Menelas, can verge on a Monty Python send-up of opera plotting. So much so, that even more than Die Frau ohne Schatten, the complexity of the plot can be defeating. That is why Strauss returned to it in 1933 (after Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929) to try and clarify things.

In Die ägyptische Helena, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal asks "What lay between that dreadful night and the complete reconciliation that followed? What can have helped rebuild this marriage as a true companionship?" Richard Strauss’s two-act opera is an intimate and emotional story about Helena and her husband Menelas. Ten years after Helen left her husband to be with Paris, this opera imagines life after her return home.

Hofmannsthal's original intention was for the work to be light and conversational, in a letter to Strauss he said, "The style must be free-flowing, on occasion as nearly as conversational as the Prologue to Ariadne [auf Naxos]. The more light-heartedly you can handle this, the better it would be.

But Hofmannsthal's text became more philosophical and psychoanalytic as it progressed, and the two men had different ideas of what the opera was actually about. Strauss complained, "I’ve been stuck for a long time at the entrance of Altair and can’t make any progress. It’s particularly difficult to find - for this entrance of the sons of the desert - the kind of music that still sounds sufficiently characteristic to the ears of 1925, without degenerating into the so-called realism of Salome, or even the eccentricities of today’s modernists who hear only with American ears."

The original intention had been to use spoken dialogue, which would have given us a radically different type of opera indeed. But, as ever, with the Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaboration things got bigger, longer and more complex! Their first collaboration is perhaps the exception, as Hofmannsthal adapted his libretto for Elektra (1909) from a pre-existing play, however, Der Rosenkavalier (1911) developed from a comic opera (its working title was Ochs auf Lerchenau) to something far more expansive and philosophical. Their next collaboration, Ariadne auf Naxos is a case in point. Originally intended as a 30-minute divertissement to be performed at the end of Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, along with Strauss incidental music to the play, the opera ended up lasting ninety minutes, and the performance of play plus opera occupied over six hours. This led to the creation of a new version with just prologue and opera, and this premiered in 1916. As we have seen, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) developed from a simple fairy tale into one of Strauss' most complex and colourful scores!

The Die ägyptische Helena was premiered by Dresden State Opera at the Semperoper in Jun 1928 with Elisabeth Rethberg as Helena. Strauss' first choice for the role was Maria Jeritza (who created the role of Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos and the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten), but the opera house had famously refused to pay Jeritza's high fee. In the event, Rethberg got fine reviews and Jeritza sang the role of Helena in Vienna and New York. 

Richard Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena - Fulham Opera
Fritz Busch was the conductor at the premiere, and in his autobiography Pages from a Musician’s Life, he talks about the opera, "Strauss played me his Ägyptische Helena which was to have its world première in Dresden and asked for my sincere opinion. I did not hesitate to say, amongst other things, that I thought Daud’s song in D flat major [Denn es ist recht] was cheap and that he ought to weigh such 'inspirations' more carefully. He in no way disputed this criticism but actually repeated it with enjoyment to his wife, who had just come into the room, but then added with disdainful cynicism: 'That’s what’s wanted for the servant girls. Believe me, dear Busch, the general public would not go to Tannhäuser it if didn’t contain ‘Oh, Star of Eve’ or to the Walküre without ‘Winter Storms.’ Well, well, that’s what they want."

But the reminiscences of coach and conductor Leo Wurmser who was on the staff at Dresden at the time of the premiere, has something rather significant to say about Busch's conducting, "At the first dress rehearsal he (Strauss) sat in the stalls following the score at a lighted desk. I sat nearby taking notes. He listened patiently to the end of the first act and then went forward and talked with Busch. So we had a break and then Act I all over again with Strauss at the rostrum. It was like a different opera; one big line from beginning to end, the right tempi and rubatos, co-operation with the singers and many of the 4/4 passages beaten in 2."

Fulham Opera performs Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at St John's Church, Fulham, SW6 1PB (19,22, 24, 26, 28 October) in a production directed by Guido Martin-Brandis, conducted by Ben Woodward/John Paul Jennings with Justine Viviani as Helena, Brian Walter Smith as Menelas, Luci Briginshaw as Aithra, Ingeborg Børch/Liza Graham as the Omniscient Mussel, Oliver Gibbs/Andrew Mayor as Altair, Dominic J Walsh as Da Ud, Liz Stock as Hermione. Full details from the Fulham Opera website.

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