Die ägyptische Helena

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Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen), Op. 75, is an opera in two acts by Richard Strauss to a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It premiered at the Dresden Semperoper on 6 June 1928. Strauss had written the title role with Maria Jeritza in mind but, creating quite a sensation at the time, the Dresden opera management refused to pay Jeritza's large fee and cast Elisabeth Rethberg instead as Helen of Troy.[1] Jeritza eventually created the part in Vienna and New York.

As inspiration for the story, Hofmannsthal used sources from Euripides and Stesichorus. Strauss made changes to the opera in 1933, five years after the premiere, working with the director Lothar Wallenstein and the conductor Clemens Krauss.[2][3]

Roles[edit]

Strauss and Busch 1928
Role Type Premiere, 6 June 1928
(Conductor: Fritz Busch)
Helena, wife of Menelaus soprano Elisabeth Rethberg
Menelaus tenor Curt Taucher
Hermione, their child soprano Anneliese Petrich
Aithra, the daughter of an Egyptian
King: a sorceress
soprano Maria Rajdl
Altair baritone Friedrich Plaschke
Da-Ud, his son tenor Guglielmo Fazzini
Two Servants of Aithra soprano,
mezzo-soprano
Erna Berger, Sigrid Rothermel
Four elves two sopranos,
two contraltos
Angela Kolniak, Eva Johnn, Elfriede Haberkorn, Sigrid Rothermel
The omniscient sea-shell contralto Helene Jung

Synopsis[edit]

Act 1[edit]

The mythological past

In her island palace, the sorceress Aithra waits in vain for Poseidon’s return. The oracle-like Omniscient Mussel tells her that though Poseidon is far away, he remains steadfast in his love for her. The Mussel then tells of a ship on which the most beautiful woman in the world, Helena (Helen of Troy), is about to be murdered by her husband, Menelas (Menelaus). To save the woman, Aithra conjures a flash storm to shipwreck the passengers, who soon make their way ashore and appear at the palace. Helena has been trying to save her marriage, but Menelas cannot forgive her for her betrayal with Paris at the start of the Trojan War. Bitterly, he has prevented their daughter, Hermione, from knowing her own mother. On land, Menelas once again plans to stab his wife, but the sight of her beauty by moonlight makes him hesitate. To ensure that he doesn’t kill her, Aithra invokes elves to torment him; they make him believe that his rival, Paris, is present, and he rushes out to confront the specter. Aithra’s magic then helps Helena regain her original youthful beauty, and a lotus drink banishes her anxiety. Servant girls take her to another room.

When Menelas stumbles back in, raving about having surprised and killed Helena and Paris, Aithra gives him the soothing drink as well. Hearing of his conflicted emotions toward his wife, the sorceress tries to tell him that nine years before, when he lost Helena to Paris, the gods actually substituted a wraith to fool Paris; the real Helena was hidden in the castle of Aithra’s father on the slopes of the Atlas Mountains. There she remains, asleep, waiting for her husband to wake her; the woman in the next room is the wraith. Aithra pledges to transport Menelas by magic to the castle. Bewildered and hesitant, he gradually yields to the notion that the original Helena will be restored to him. In a pavilion at the foot of the mountain, the two can be reunited. Aithra suggests he use the lotus potion to keep disturbing memories at bay.

Act 2[edit]

In the pavilion, Helena awakens and hails the couple’s second wedding night (“Zweite Brautnacht”). Menelas, also awakening, still mistrusts his senses. His wife tries to soothe him with more lotus juice, but he catches sight of his sword, which revives jarring memories. Is this woman real or an illusion? Desert horsemen appear, and Altair, prince of the mountains, bows before Helena, offering gifts; his son Da-ud joins in praising her beauty. The scene reminds Menelas of a Trojan celebration in honor of Helena, but he tries to conceal his jealousy as Altair and Da-ud invite him to join a hunting party. Bidding farewell to Helena, and still uncertain of her identity, he leaves for the hunt. Aithra appears as one of the serving girls and cautions Helena that one of the vials she has packed contains a potion of forgetfulness but the other a potion of recollection. Against Aithra’s strong advice Helena declares that recollection will be necessary to save her marriage; the fantasy of returning to an unblemished past is not a genuine solution.

At a sign from Helena, the maidservants withdraw when Altair returns, paying bold court to her and inviting her to a banquet in her honor. Even when word arrives that Menelas has killed Da-ud during the hunt, Altair continues his suit. He steps away, though, when the youth’s body is brought in, followed by Menelas, who remains confused, thinking it is Paris he has killed. Again defying Aithra’s counsel, Helena orders the potion of recollection prepared as time for the feast draws near. Menelas now imagines that the real Helena has died, and he resolves to join her in death; the Helena before him is surely the wraith. When he takes what he thinks is the potion of death, however, he sees the dead Helena as the living one: both are united. Altair and his cohorts seize and separate the couple, but Aithra reveals a phalanx of Poseidon’s soldiers, who are escorting the child Hermione. Recognizing Aithra the sorceress, Altair bows to her power. Hermione, reunited at last with her parents, will go home with them to begin their life together.

Instrumentation[edit]

Although not dense and magmatic as the orchestration for Elektra and Salome, it is still impressive:

Audio examples[edit]

Recordings[edit]

There is a recording of a few excerpts made in 1928 with Fritz Busch conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra with Rose Pauly singing Helena. Two of these (Bei Jener nacht and Zweite Brautnacht) are included in the Preiser records collection Richard Strauss Opera Scenes - Historical Recordings 1928-43 released in 2000. Recordings of the complete opera include:

Year Cast
(Helena,
Menelaus,
Aithra,
Altair)
Conductor,
Opera House and Orchestra
Label[4]
1956 Leonie Rysanek,
Bernd Aldenhoff,
Annelies Kupper,
Hermann Uhde
Joseph Keilberth,
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Opera d'Oro
Cat: OPD 1381
1970 Gwyneth Jones,
Jess Thomas,
Mimi Coertse,

Peter Glossop

Josef Krips
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus
(Recording of a performance given at the Vienna State Opera, 5 December)
Audio CD: RCA
Cat: 74321 69429-2
1979 Gwyneth Jones,
Matti Kastu,
Barbara Hendricks,
Willard White
Antal Dorati,
Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Kenneth Jewell Chorale
Audio CD: Decca (London)
Cat: 430 381-2
2001 Vitalija Blinstrubyte,
Stephen O'Mara,
Giulia Mattana,
Johannes von Duisburg
Gérard Korsten,
Teatro Lirico di Cagliari Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Dynanmic
Cat: CDS 374/1-2
2002 Deborah Voigt,
Carl Tanner,
Celena Shafer,
Christopher Robertson
Leon Botstein,
American Symphony Orchestra and the New York Concert Chorale
(Recording of a concert performance in the Avery Fisher Hall,6 October)
Audio CD: Telarc
Cat: CD 80605

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Robert Baxter, "Die ägyptische Helena. Richard Strauss", (recording review) in The Opera Quarterly, 18(4), 643-647 (2002)
  2. ^ Roger Pines, "Die ägyptische Helena. Richard Strauss", (recording review), The Opera Quarterly, 7(4), 195-197 (1990)
  3. ^ Roland Graeme, "Die ägyptische Helena: Original version (1928)", The Opera Quarterly, 15, 540-544 (1999)
  4. ^ Recordings of Die ägyptische Helena on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk

Sources

External links