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First of all, I’d like to say that the folks at Telarc captured this
concert performance of “Die Ägyptische Helena,” (“The Egyptian
Helen”) very well. Due to encouragement from conductor
Clemens Krauss (1893-1954) and director Lothar Wallerstein
(1882-1949), Act Two was revised, and the abridged version
has also been performed. However, the version I recently heard
was the complete score from the 1928 Dresden premiere.
In fact, it may be the only recording of its kind, as I’m unsure
if the 1979 Decca recording under the baton of Antal Doráti
(1906-1988) is abridged.

While it was never a popular work at the time, librettist
Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) considered it to be his
best effort. In addition to this opera, the entire “marriage triptych”
is explored in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (1919),
and “Intermezzo” (1924). Along with the plot elements of
these two other preceding operas by Strauss (1864-1949),
in the liner notes, essayist Bryan Gilliam indicates a focus on
“…the complexities to be found in marital relationships,” which
are even thematically explored in the composer’s 1904
“Symphonie Domestica.”

The plot of “Die Ägyptische Helena,” concerns the reunion
between Menelaus and his wife, Helena, which occurred after
she ran away with Paris, Prince of Troy, thus precipitating the
bloody, 10-year Trojan War. The reunion is assisted by magic
lotus juice from Poseidon’s mistress, the sorceress Aithra.
During Act One, a seashell has a featured role, which is sung by
a mezzo-soprano.

I’d have to disagree with the opinions expressed in the
accompanying essay by Leon Botstein, in which he extols
the virtues of this libretto, and discusses Richard Strauss’ career
and collaborations with Hofmannsthal. While based upon Greek
mythology, I found this story to be far-fetched; however, it did
provide Strauss with an opportunity to write some magnificent
vocal and orchestral music. He loved the soprano voice, and
the role of Helena is the most dramatically memorable one in
the opera. Aithra also has some gorgeous music to sing, as do
the lesser roles of various elves and servants. The punishing
tenor role of Menelaus is the only male voice in Act One. It requires
a heroic voice with a lot of stamina. The roles of the mountain
prince, Altair, and his son Da-Ud are male parts added in Act Two,
but aside from the choral parts, the remainder of the work is
dominated by female voices, and Strauss reserves his most
beautiful vocal writing for them.

As for the singers, sopranos Deborah Voight and Celena Shafer
are most impressive. At the time of this recording, Deborah Voight
was the only “internationally famous” singer on the roster, which
primarily listed “up and coming” artists. The result was occasional
vocal performance problems. In my opinion, Shafer gave the
most standout performance, with a particularly shimmering range.
Voight’s vocals were powerful, and she cut through the heavy
orchestration easily. I wasn’t as impressed with Carl Tunner’s
singing of Menelaus, because I believe that he lacked the heroic
“heft” required for this punishing tenor role. He seemed to be
working too hard. I was also under whelmed by Christopher
Robertson’s portrayal of Altair. The chorus sounded good in
Act Two, but all in all, I believe that the female soloists
outshone their male counterparts.

Nevertheless in my opinion, the real “star” of this opera was
the orchestra. The orchestral writing is masterly, and on a
par with some of Strauss’ greatest works. The performance
by the American Symphony Orchestra was well recorded and
taped during a single “live” concert performance. Leon Botstein
led an impassioned reading of this opera. I’m grateful to him for
conducting this unjustly neglected work, and I applaud his
adventurous tendencies. We need more conductors like him!
It was nice to hear this score in such glorious, modern sound,
because there are so many “riches” within it.