THAT FACE OF BEAUTY, THE CHAOS IT CREATES
If a concert pianist wants to champion an overlooked work, all he needs to do is to program it on a recital tour. But if a leading soprano wants to perform a challenging role in a little-known opera, she needs an entire opera company to mount the work, with all the money, time and risk such a commitment entails.
When that artist is the dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt, and the company is the Metropolitan Opera, which has hugely benefited from Ms. Voigt’s services since her 1991 debut, it makes sense for the company to accommodate the prima donna.
On Thursday Ms. Voigt fulfilled a long-held desire to sing the title role in Richard Strauss’s seldom-staged 1928 opera, “Die Ägyptische Helena,” at the Met, the company’s first production of the work since seven performances in the 1928-29 season. Reading through commentaries on the opera, it is hard to find an unqualified endorsement of this Strauss work, which followed “Intermezzo” and preceded “Arabella.”
Ms. Voigt sang the role in a concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra in 2002, available on a Telarc recording. She has now gotten her chance to make a case for “Helena” onstage. The Met has backed her up with a fanciful and handsome new production by David Fielding, who also designed the sets and costumes, in his Met debut, along with a strong supporting cast and, perhaps most crucially, the conductor Fabio Luisi. This dynamic Italian maestro led a nuanced, urgent and lucidly textured account of this lushly orchestrated score, presented here in its original version.
So what’s the matter with “Helena”? Strauss and the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had long talked of writing an opera about the mythical Helen of Troy, the wife of Menelaus, who is abducted by Paris, not entirely unwillingly. It’s an act that in Homer’s telling precipitated the Trojan War. But they were drawn to an alternate version of the tale, best known through Euripides, in which Paris runs off with a phantom Helen created by the goddess Hera, while the real Helen remains captive in Egypt until she is eventually reunited with her husband.
The operatic “Helena” has a wry, contemporary twist. The phantom-Helen device is presented as a ploy, and at first Menelas (to use the German libretto’s spelling) is taken in. When the truth comes out, recalling his experience of betrayal and anguish, Menelas is grateful to be reconciled with his real wife. The creators surely realized the psychological and comic resonance of their version of the myth, with which every cheating spouse who has tried the “I wasn’t myself” defense will identify.
Still, they set out to write a lyrically rich and poetic yet lighthearted and buoyant opera. But the libretto is verbose and philosophical, cluttered with convoluted subplots. Strauss responded with music that at times sounds unfocused and generic: Is a passage heroic or mock-heroic? Opulently lyrical or intentionally over the top?
Even on automatic pilot, though, Strauss is still Strauss, and it was hard to ponder the opera’s shortcomings in the presence of Ms. Voigt’s splendid portrayal. She sent Strauss’s lines soaring with gleaming tone and unforced power. In one climactic moment, standing atop the prompter’s box, she capped a defiant outburst with a high C that, like some “Star Wars” light saber, threatened to slice the auditorium right down the middle. Yet Strauss’s lyrical effusions must have grace and lightness as well, qualities that as always came naturally to Ms. Voigt.
Just as impressive in different ways was the German coloratura soprano Diana Damrau, as the sorceress Aithra, who is pining for her absent lover, Poseidon, when she becomes enmeshed in Helena’s plight and concocts the fraudulent plan to rescue the marriage. A lovely, physically nimble and captivating artist, Ms. Damrau sang with impeccable agility, dramatic flair and penetratingly rich sound.
The production, which gives the mythical tale a playfully contemporary look, originated in 1997 at the Garsington Opera in England, which performs in a space with just 500 seats. Every detail of Mr. Fielding’s show was recreated at the Met, but enlarged, naturally, including the ultimate in an oversize conjugal bed. The set is a surreal matrix of lopsided walls, massive doors and a raked stage. Simple yet beautifully painted flats and screens evoke ocean waves, desert sands and columned temples. A chorus of Iggy Pop-like elves was one of the many amusing strokes.
Then there is the peculiar role of the Omniscient Mussel. The creators conceived it as a towering oyster with a hidden contralto voicing the creature’s magical pronouncements. Here the oyster is a simple sea conch containing the various potions that make characters either forget or recall their past, depending upon the needs of the lurching plot. The earthy mezzo-soprano Jill Grove sings the mussel’s music, dressed like a doppelgänger, a phantom in black for Act I, and in white for Act II.
The veteran baritone Wolfgang Brendel plays Altair, a prince who comes questing after the divine Helena with a retinue of white-suited sentinels, trailed by his son, the love-struck Da-ud, here the appealing tenor Garrett Sorenson.
Torsten Kerl, a German tenor making his Met debut in the punishing lead male role of Menelas, had to bow out after Act I because he was still suffering from a bad cold. He was replaced by Michael Hendrick, who had sung the dress rehearsal on Monday and was all set to go. Making your Met debut in such tense circumstances has to be intimidating. Still, Mr. Hendrick saved the day, singing with husky sound and energy. Fuller assessments of both tenors will have to wait.
But the night, finally, was Ms. Voigt’s, who commanded the stage from her first stately appearance in a simple royal purple dress and wavy auburn hair. To portray “the most beautiful woman in the world,” as everyone keeps calling Helena, must have been gratifying to someone who remembers being a chunky Illinois teenager who used to spin around her living room singing “I Could Have Danced All Night,” dreaming of a career onstage.