As he had done with Ariadne auf Naxos, Hugo von Hofmannstahl published a brief introduction to his penultimate collaboration with Richard Strauss, Die ägyptische Helena, two months prior to its first performance in June,1928. Tantalized for nearly a decade by the the lacuna in Helen of Troy’s story between the end of the Iliad and Telemachus’ later encounter with her and Menelas happily reigning over Sparta in the Odyssey, he pondered what it would have taken for the couple to reconcile after all the strife, blood and betrayal of the Trojan War. Strauss had been enticed by the Helen legend as well. Both initially envisioned something “in the spirit of Offenbach” incorporating dance and spoken dialogue. Though that spirit infuses the libretto’s concise first act with its potions, variety of incident, and inventive, sometimes suggestive, wordplay and imagery, the opera as a whole developed into a post-war allegory along the lines of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Kirsten Chambers © Kathy Wittman
Kirsten Chambers
© Kathy Wittman

The Trojan War ended the “Age of Heroes”; World War 1 destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and swept the Habsburgs from power. Menelas, like the shellshocked veterans Hofmannstahl alludes to in his introductory article, lives in a nightmare world where the horrors of war remain real and ever present. It is no accident that the elves use the “sounds of war” to drive him to distraction in Act 1. Nor is the reliance on narcotics to cope with reality. A variety of opiates were legally and readily available in post-war Germany and Austria, widely consumed. Substituting illusion for reality and evasion for recollection is not the answer, however. Like Helen and Menelas in Act 2, Austrians would have to confront and embrace the reality of their past in order to secure a future. Unfortunately, Hofmannstahl’s ambitious but discursive second act stumbles, losing itself in a thicket of paradoxes and a completely expendable subplot.

Casting proliferates the libretto’s challenges, with Strauss requiring three singers of unusual stamina and versatility for Aithra, Helena, and Menelas. Odyssey Opera had the good fortune to engage Katrina Galka, Kirsten Chambers, and Clay Hilley for those roles. Menelas is Strauss’ longest and most unforgiving tenor part. Its tessitura is high and relentless, but the singer must also be able to lighten and sweeten the voice for the more lyrical passages. Clay Hilley had the capacity to master both aspects, plus the stamina to maintain that mastery. His voice has power and ping, carrying over Strauss’ loudest outbursts, and convincingly expresses Menelas’ delirium without devolving into ear-splitting hysteria. Kristen Chambers’ Helena was by turns coquettish, sultry, calculatingly submissive and ardent. Daughter of Leda and Zeus, she is also a demigod, a quality Chambers was able to convey through both delivery and demeanor. Three gown and make-up changes added to the allure. Her voice remained warm and without signs of strain even at its highest and loudest and contrasted well with Katrina Galka’s bright, liquid tones in their duets.

Kirsten Chambers and Clay Hilley © Kathy Wittman
Kirsten Chambers and Clay Hilley
© Kathy Wittman

Galka’s Aithra is something of a sorceress Sally Bowles, who at one point chides her servant, “I don’t want drugs! I want distraction!”. Helena’s predicament provides her with one but, at first, she intervenes, ignorant of the identity of the woman whose life she saves. Then she thrills like a fan-girl when she discovers it’s Helen of Troy. Galka’s reaction to Helena left no doubt that the Spartan queen’s charms bewitched women as well as men, lending an erotic frisson to their duets. Her voice spins out seamlessly from bottom to top with a distinct opalescent quality and her coloratura was nimble and precise. Galka captivatingly generated most of the comic energy in Act 1, which was sadly missed in the second act.

As always with Odyssey Opera, the supporting roles were solid with Joyce Castle’s voice as the Omniscent Sea Shell noteworthy for its earthy, otherworldly quality and Won Whi Choi debuting a tenor which is meant for more than Da-oud offers.

Strauss’ score specifies an orchestra of 101 players, which would tax the capacity of Jordan Hall’s stage. Gil Rose reduced his forces by 30 and for the most part avoided covering his singers. He was uncharacteristically hard-driving, however, even sending his baton flying into the first row in Act 1, and left little breathing room for the more lyrical passages.

Die ägyptische Helena has flaws and challenges which make a convincing staging a rarity and hobble its chances of ever becoming a repertory opera. However, a concert performance with its focus on the music and the singing allows listeners to appreciate how much Strauss’ sumptuous and intricate score not only compensates for the libretto’s drawbacks but elevates the action.













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