Die Ägyptische Helena—The 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 Arabella—Egyptian 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.)
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.
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.
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.
EGYPTIAN HELEN extras:
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.
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.”