Die Ägyp­tis­che HelenaThe Egypt­ian Helen—is the poor, neglected step­sis­ter of the operas writ­ten by Richard Strauss and his favorite libret­tist Hugo von Hof­mannsthal. Despite the pop­u­lar­ity of their other operas—Elek­tra, Der Rosenkava­lier, Ari­adne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and Ara­bellaEgypt­ian Helen remains vir­tu­ally unknown except for the most die-hard Strauss fans.

Before this new pro­duc­tion opened at the Met on March 15, 2007, the com­pany had only given seven per­for­mances of the work, dur­ing Novem­ber and Decem­ber, 1928. This pro­duc­tion orig­i­nated at the Gars­ing­ton Fes­ti­val, out­side Oxford, Eng­land, where its per­for­mance in 1997 was the first time the opera had ever been staged in the U.K. The Egypt­ian Helen did not even get a com­mer­cial record­ing until 1979, over half a cen­tury after its première.

The Met’s 1928 per­for­mances of Egypt­ian Helen fol­lowed its world pre­mière in Dres­den by five months, and starred the glam­orous soprano Maria Jer­itza for whom the opera had been writ­ten.  That sump­tu­ous pro­duc­tion was by Joseph Urban, who, two years ear­lier, had designed the first Turan­dot at the Met (and in the U.S.), which also starred Jer­itza. Her blonde beauty, riv­et­ing act­ing, and soar­ing voice were famil­iar to Strauss. She had cre­ated lead­ing roles in the world pre­mieres of Ari­adne (both 1912 and 1916 ver­sions), and Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and had also intro­duced Egypt­ian Helen to Vienna with Strauss him­self con­duct­ing five days after its world pre­mière. So it is sur­pris­ing to read in the New York Times review of that first Met Helen that  “a page, and a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult one” was cut out of Helen’s big aria that opens Act II, “Zweite Braut­nacht” (Sec­ond Bridal Night.)

Jer­itza and Strauss at the Vienna première.

Two scores in the Met Music Library used in those 1928 per­for­mances con­firm exten­sive cuts were made, espe­cially in the sec­ond act. But what is shock­ing is that Jer­itza did not sing almost half of her main aria! Out of ten pages, four and a half pages were cut from the mid­dle, and six mea­sures were deleted from the aria’s final eleven mea­sures, includ­ing the cli­mac­tic high C-sharp. Which means that Deb­o­rah Voigt will be the first soprano in Met his­tory to sing Helen’s famous aria com­plete on stage dur­ing a per­for­mance. (Leon­tyne Price sang the aria dur­ing a Lewisohn Sta­dium con­cert she and the Met orches­tra gave in July 1966.)

Strauss had been pleased when Hof­mannsthal sug­gested Jer­itza would be per­fect for the lead­ing role of a libretto he had been work­ing on based on the leg­endary fig­ure of Helen of Troy, the most beau­ti­ful woman in the world, “the face that launched a thou­sand ships,” and the cause of the Tro­jan war. Strauss had first seen Jer­itza in Offenbach’s La Belle Helene, and he was long­ing to com­pose a light opera with Hof­mannsthal. After their col­lab­o­ra­tion on the roman­tic Die Frau ohne Schat­ten (1919), Strauss decided to use a mis­un­der­stand­ing in his own mar­riage as the basis for a comic opera. The fas­tid­i­ous Hof­mannsthal was aghast at the idea of an artist putting his pri­vate life on stage, and he refused to have any­thing to do with the project. Strauss wrote his own libretto and the result was Inter­mezzo, first given in 1923.

But Strauss greatly val­ued col­lab­o­rat­ing with Hof­mannsthal, and the oppor­tu­nity to work on another project based on Greek myth (as they had with Elek­tra and Ari­adne) was appeal­ing, espe­cially since the libret­tist urged, “The style must be free-flowing, on occa­sion as nearly as con­ver­sa­tional as the Pro­logue to Ari­adne. The more light heart­edly you can han­dle this, the bet­ter it would be.”

The opera con­cerns the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Helen and her hus­band, Menelaus, after he has sacked Troy and killed his arch enemy, Paris, whose kid­nap­ping of Helen ten years before had set off the Tro­jan war. “What lay between that dread­ful night [when Menelaus res­cued his wife from Troy] and the com­plete rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that fol­lowed?” Hof­mannsthal wrote. “What can have helped rebuild this mar­riage as a true companionship?”

Hof­mannsthal based his libretto on sev­eral ancient Greek sources — Homer’s Odyssey, and works by Herodotus and Euripi­des, among oth­ers. And he chose a ver­sion of the tale that said the Helen who was car­ried off by Paris, and who lived with him for ten years, was a phan­tom Helen. The real, flesh and blood Helen had remained behind in her husband’s home in Egypt.

Strauss loved the libretto of the first act, prais­ing it as highly as he had praised the first act of Rosenkava­lier about a decade before. Hof­mannsthal was delighted. “Tell your­self that you mean to han­dle it as if it were merely to be an operetta,” he wrote. “It’s bound to be by Richard Strauss at the end.”

But Act II proved much more dif­fi­cult. Hof­mannsthal, as he was some­times inclined to do, began wax­ing ever more philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­an­a­lytic as the libretto pro­gressed, and once again, the two men found they had very dif­fer­ent ideas on what their new opera was all about. Part way through Act II, 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.”

Their orig­i­nal plan, to use spo­ken dia­logue in between musi­cal num­bers (as in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fide­lio) was dropped, and the result was an almost unprece­dented oppor­tu­nity for musi­cal ensem­bles, which has led some crit­ics to refer to Egypt­ian Helen as the Strauss/Hofmannsthal bel canto opera. It also has, in Menelaus, by far their longest and most devel­oped tenor role.

The 1928 score

Strauss fin­ished the score in Octo­ber, 1927, but a prob­lem arose over the first per­for­mance.  Jeritza’s fee was far too exor­bi­tant for the Dres­den opera which, in any case, was bound by the rules of the Deutscher Büh­nen­verein that pro­hib­ited pay­ing such a high fee. So Strauss sug­gested Elis­a­beth Reth­berg for the pre­mière. Her voice was excep­tion­ally beau­ti­ful (Toscanini com­pared it to a finely played Stradi­var­ius), and she was some­thing a local favorite, hav­ing been born nearby and start­ing her career with the Dres­den company.

She is now a great star in New York, next to Jer­itza, and is about to enter into a sim­i­lar rela­tion­ship to Dres­den as Jer­itza to Vienna. Since I believe there is no chance now of get­ting Jer­itza I have def­i­nitely decided for Reth­berg, whose some­what bour­geois appear­ance has ‘greatly improved’ in Amer­ica,” Strauss told Hof­mannsthal, adding prag­mat­i­cally, “she is not so tall as Mme Jer­itza, and will there­fore go bet­ter with the short [Curt] Taucher as Menelaus; she enjoys a great inter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion and is today gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the best Ger­man singer with the most mag­nif­i­cent voice and an accom­plished singing tech­nique. She intends to call on me dur­ing the next few days so as to con­vince me per­son­ally of her ‘sophis­ti­cated’ appear­ance — I don’t believe we’ll find any­thing bet­ter in the circumstances.

Jer­itza, if she really wants to, can then cre­ate the part in Vienna in Sep­tem­ber and alter­nate with Reth­berg in New York.”

Hof­mannsthal hit the roof. “Helena with a grace­less Helen is sim­ply ruined. This opera, of that I am well aware, is not a dead cer­tainty; but it has very real chances of com­plete, gen­uine suc­cess on stage, pro­vided the histri­onic ele­ments go hand in hand with the musi­cal ones. It is not the face of the actress that mat­ters; a very pretty doll might make a wretched Helena. Nor does it mat­ter whether Mms Reth­berg has now got a bet­ter dress­maker and looks ‘more sophis­ti­cated’ (what goes for sophis­ti­cated among the­atri­cal peo­ple in Ger­man is in any case some­thing awful),” sniffed the Vien­nese Hof­mannsthal. “But every­thing depends on the magic of act­ing and move­ment, that means on a specif­i­cally fem­i­nine tal­ent for the the­ater. Mme Reth­berg may sing like a nightin­gale, I under­stand noth­ing about that; what I do know is that she is worse than mediocre as an actress and this will ruin Helen, com­pletely ruin her.”

Strauss replied calmly to this out­burst — as he usu­ally did to his librettist’s bouts of hys­te­ria — by talk­ing dol­lars and cents, or, in this case Deutschmarks, finally declar­ing “We shall sim­ply have to do with­out Jer­itza! You only know her, just as I do, from the time before she went to Amer­ica.” He then added, “From what I have heard lately about Jer­itza, I’m not at all sure that, apart from appear­ance and stage tal­ent, she too would not leave a good many other wishes unfilled.”

There was talk of ask­ing Jer­itza if she would be will­ing to sing the pre­mière in Dres­den for noth­ing, thus get­ting around the Deutscher Büh­nen­verein rules. “But I doubt whether the pub­lic­ity will seem to her worth the sac­ri­fice,” Strauss sagely noted.

In the end, it was Elis­a­beth Reth­berg who cre­ated the role of Helena in Dres­den on June 6, 1928. Her reviews where glow­ing.  Five days later, Jer­itza sang the role in Vienna with Strauss conducting.

Reth­berg as Madama Butterly

In one of those twists of fate a writer of fic­tion would hardly dare come up with, on the night that Jer­itza cre­ated the role at the Met — Novem­ber 6, 1928 — the com­pany was also pre­sent­ing Puccini’s Madama But­ter­fly in Brook­lyn. Reth­berg sang Cio-Cio-San that evening, and it’s impos­si­ble not to won­der what went through her mind. (Despite what Strauss pre­dicted to Hof­mannsthal, Reth­berg never sang the role of Helena at the Met.)

Also in that first Met cast for Helena was Rudolf Lauben­thal as Menelaus (Wal­ter Kirch­hoff sang some of the other per­for­mances), Editha Fleis­cher as Aithra, Clarence White­hill as Altair, and Mar­ion Telva (known to record col­lec­tors for her Adal­gisa to Rosa Ponselle’s Norma) as the Omni­scient Seashell. For some rea­son the small tenor role of Da-ud in Act II was assigned to the mezzo Jane Car­roll (“late of the Fol­lies” noted one news­pa­per). Artur Bodanzky con­ducted. The crit­ics were sav­age, though they admit­ted Strauss’s skill in writ­ing for the orches­tra was unsurpassed.

But there is, in fact, much to admire in The Egypt­ian Helen in addi­tion to Helen’s justly famous Act II aria. Through­out the opera there is a con­stant out­pour­ing of lus­cious melody, sharply delin­eated between char­ac­ters. In Act I Strauss’s musi­cal jux­ta­pos­ing of Aithra, Helen, Menelaus, and the mock­ing, sar­donic elves, is a con­stant delight. There are also sim­ply mag­i­cal moments, as at the begin­ning of the finale of Act I, when Strauss slowly builds the orches­tral sound to a triple forte as Aithra pulls back the cur­tain to show Menelaus the sleep­ing Helen, only to have him gaze at his wife as a French horn plays a soft haunt­ing melody over the gen­tle mur­mur­ings of the strings. It is Strauss at his most enchant­ing, once heard, never to be forgotten.

Per­haps this new pro­duc­tion at the Met (which uses Strauss’s orig­i­nal score, not his 1933 revi­sion) will do for The Egypt­ian Helen what the Met’s 1966 pro­duc­tion of Die Frau ohne Schat­ten did — reveal that, in fact, we have another almost unknown opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hof­mannsthal to enjoy and, yes, even to love.

A some­what dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2007.

The image at the top of the page is of a Greek vase, ca: 450 – 40 B.C. depict­ing Helen and Menelaus.



It was a June 1940 revival of Die Ägyp­tis­che Helena in Munich that led Strauss to finally orches­trate one of his most pop­u­lar songs, “Zueig­nung.” The orches­tra­tion we almost always hear is by Robert Heger. Unfor­tu­nately, it’s rather clunky and heavy handed. Given the song’s pop­u­lar­ity it’s sur­pris­ing Strauss did not orches­trated “Zueig­nung” as he did sev­eral other early songs so his wife, Pauline, could sing them in their joint concerts.

Strauss’s seldom-heard incan­des­cent orches­tra­tion was a gift for soprano Vior­ica Ursuleac who was the Helena in Munich. She had sung the title role in Ara­bella’s pre­mière in 1933, and went on to cre­ate sev­eral Strauss roles: Maria in Frien­den­stag (1938), The Count­ess in Capric­cio (1942), and she was Danae in the pub­lic dress rehearsal of Die Liebe der Danae in Salzburg on August 16, 1944, after which, the offi­cial pre­mière was can­celled due to the procla­ma­tion of total war that closed all the­aters in the Third Reich. Ursuleac was also a famous Marschallin in Rosenkava­lier, Chrysothemis in Elek­tra, and Empress in Die Frau ohne Schat­ten.  On Strauss’s birth­day, June 11, 1935 she sang the part of Ari­adne in what must be one of the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing radio broad­casts of a com­plete Strauss opera (though the Pro­logue was not per­formed). Con­ducted by Clemens Krauss (who would later become Ursuleac’s hus­band) the broad­cast orig­i­nated in Berlin and included a rather ritzy cast: Helge Ros­vaenge (Bac­chus), Miliza Kor­jus (as Najad), and  Erna Berger (Zer­bi­netta), to men­tion only a few.

In the last line of “Zueig­nung” Strauss added the worlds “du wun­der­bare Helena” before the final “habe Dank!” And after the con­clud­ing chord he wrote in the score “Für Viorica.”

The first record­ing to use Strauss’s shim­mer­ing orches­tra­tion was made in 1977, when Montser­rat Caballé and Leonard Bern­stein recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon.

Strauss and Busch out­side the Dres­den State Opera, 1928

The con­duc­tor of the world pre­mière of Die Ägyp­tis­che Helena was Fritz Busch who talks quite frankly about Strauss in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Pages from a Musician’s Life. One day Busch was work­ing with the first clar­inet of the Staatskapelle Dres­den in his office at the Dres­den State Opera, going through Mozart’s clar­inet con­certo. The door sud­denly opened and in walked Strauss. “We talked for a long time after this rehearsal about the mar­velous Mozart,” Busch wrote. “Strauss declared that his g minor string quin­tet  [K. 516] was the sum­mit of all music.”

Busch also wrote: “In Garmisch 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.’ ”

In Nor­man Del Mar’s three-volume study of Strauss he quotes from the rem­i­nis­cences of coach and con­duc­tor Leo Wurmser who was on the staff of the Dres­den State Opera at the time Egypt­ian Helen had its pre­mière. “Strauss came to the final rehearsals, seemed on the whole more inter­ested in the pro­duc­tion than in the music and wanted sev­eral things altered. Pauline, who sat in the first row of the stalls, to everyone’s con­ster­na­tion, clam­ored for horses on the stage which had not been pro­vided. At the end of Act I she cried, ‘There isn’t enough thun­der! We want more thun­der here.’ After a whis­pered con­sul­ta­tion with her, Strauss called to [the pro­ducer] Erhardt, ‘All right, Dr. Erhardt, let’s have more thun­der,’ and added aside to the orches­tra, ‘The Wife is always for thun­der.’ At the first dress rehearsal he 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.”