IN REVIEW: THE METROPOLITAN OPERA - NEW YORK CITY

Any staged production of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal Die Ägyptische Helena faces sobering odds. The libretto, with its substance abuses and a singing character called the Omniscient Mussel, seems either inept or parodic - except, that is, when it's static and claustrophobic. The premise whereby Menelas, the serially cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy, can be tricked, drugged and finally persuaded into a reconciliation, strips him of both credibility and stature. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, at this late point in his career, proved more fruitful in poetic insight than in dramatic effectiveness, and the action, as in a muted tragedy by Racine, is nearly always happening elsewhere.

But the Met's new production of the work (seen at its second performance, on March 19) had plenty going for it, aside from a flood of full-blown Straussian melody. The cast, conductor and designer/director can all claim experience - and success - with the opera. The glamorously slimmed-down Deborah Voigt now has the physique to match the vocal heroics of her Helena, a role she has made her own through a recording and several concert performances.

If the result at the Met seems unlikely to rehabilitate the opera, the blame was not only Hofmannsthal's. A series of poor choices took this production off course, starting with the version of the score selected. The original 1928 work was uneven; Act I, with its soprano-on-soprano textures (always congenial to Strauss) and its preoccupation with enchantment and seduction, dwarfed the second half's pseudo-Wagnerian machismo and argumentation. Strauss's judicious cutting and reshuffling for a 1933 Salzburg revival are generally believed to have improved the work's pace and consistency. Unfortunately the Met second-guessed the composer, reverting to the 1928 original (which also played, unsuccessfully, at the Met that same year, in the opera's U.S. premiere).

David Fielding's Met staging and designs were based on his 1997 production at Garsington Opera in the U.K. He wisely resists a literalist approach. The Mussel manages not to cause laughter, thanks both to Jill Grove's splendid dark vocalism and to the character's discreet encasement in black, with black makeup, in Act I. The other figures are in modern or abstract dress - gangster-style suits and shades for die men, who sometimes carry sword and suitcase. The sets' huge off-kilter doors and windows, along with a postmodern indoor moon, playfully evoke the non-place that is the redoubt of the nymph Aithra, lover of Poseidon. Fielding's madcap mixture of silliness and fevered romanticism is true to die score, in which the erotic fade-out in Act I is accompanied by twittering elves and spirits.

But the promising imaginative start loses focus. A character will seem at first to be doubled by a shadow self, who turns out to be a different person in similar garb. The backdrop dominated by a gigantic running male silhouette suggests, at various times, Poseidon, Menelas or Altair; but why is any of them running? The tone is also muddled; the stylization of the early scenes yields to traditional operatic melodramatic gestures, and finally to a smarmy reunion with Helena's daughter Hermione. The final tableau feels like a soap-opera reconciliation, complete with a real gangplank for the happy homeward-bound family.

Despite Strauss's often-cited appeals to keep the orchestration transparent, conductor Fabio Luisi favors the Elektra approach. Such bombast may be suited to Voigt's huge high fortissimos, but it robbed her, as well as those with more mortal timbres, of most opportunities for Straussian lyricism. Tenor Michael Hendrick stepped in for the ailing Torsten Kerl as Menelas (as he had also done halfway through the premiere, on March 15) and demonstrated musical sensitivity whenever the orchestral volume relented. Garrett Sorenson fared similarly in the lighter tenor role of Da-ud. Wolfgang Brendel, the villainous Altair, looked and sounded surprisingly robust for a singer who made his Met debut in 1975.

As expected, Voigt was an appealing, extremely attractive Helena. She soared over the hurdles of her Act II aria "Zweite Brautnacht," though even here her singing lacked variety and showed some harsh edges. Only in her final scene did she attempt any of the soft modulation that has graced her other Straussian work. Nuance came mostly from Diana Damrau, as the mercurial Aithra, the nymph who puts her magical gifts to Helena's use. The soprano's agility and dynamic range offered a welcome relief from the prevailing thunder; yet she too resorted sometimes to strident forcing. Damrau was arresting and resourceful in fulfilling the sometimes silly stage direction.

DAVID J. BAKER

[Sidebar]

The Met s new production of Die Ägyptische Helena had plenty going for it. aside from a flood of full-blown Straussian melody.

The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.

David J. BakerOpera News