SINGING MUSSEL, ELVES, SLIM DIVA ANIMATE SILLY `HELEN' AT MET

March 16 (Bloomberg) -- I had high hopes for an opera prominently featuring a singing mussel with all-seeing powers. Even in the fanciful land of opera, where dragons, toads and kettles sing and dance, the mussel is unique.

Thank Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal who created what they called Die Alles Wissende Muschel and placed her center stage at the opening of ``Egyptian Helen'' (``Die Aegyptische Helena''), a piece first heard in 1928. The mussel sings mezzo and according to the stage directions occupies a tripod in a palace overlooking the ocean. That gives her a good view over some lesser-known events connected to the Trojan War.

Last night, a new production opened at New York's Metropolitan Opera featuring Deborah Voigt as Helen of Troy, Torsten Kerl and Michael Hendrick as husband Menelaus (both making their Met debuts), Jill Grove as Mussel, Diana Damrau as a sorcerous princess named Aithra, a number of entertaining, wild-haired elves, and several male characters I could not keep straight. Who was the guy in the red suit and matching red head? The problem isn't the mussel. It's the rest of the piece.

``Who are you?'' asks Menelaus after spending a night with Helen. Confusion reigns from beginning to end. Everyone spends a lot of time downing sedatives, potions and mysterious drinks made from lotus juice.

What were they thinking, Strauss and Hofmannsthal? Or drinking? The story makes no sense. When he provided Strauss with the libretto, years after ``Der Rosenkavalier,'' Hofmannsthal was no longer at the height of his poetic powers, and lost in a hermetic world of words. This mythic fantasy is based on forgotten Greek plays suggesting that the real Helen never got to Troy and was not responsible for the long war at all. She was living quite virtuously in Egypt, while an adulterous simulacrum kept Paris busy.

Goering's Wedding

``My mind is confused,'' someone sings on behalf of listeners agog at the puzzling and undramatic melding of past and present, dream and reality. After attending the Met premiere in 1928, New York critic W.J. Henderson wrote that ``even in a sea of poor librettos, none were more puerile, more futile, or less interesting than this.''

``Helen'' is rarely staged today and its fans were never plentiful, though Hermann Goeringattended a performance at the Berlin Staatsoper the night before his wedding. Perhaps the constant talk of drugs and food (the unfortunate opening line is, ``Dinner is ready'') appealed to the Third Reich's fattest drug addict.

Swill of Strauss

Without Voigt, this clunker would never have arrived at the Met. Now about half her former size after stomach surgery, she looked splendid in the slinky dresses of the world's most famous femme fatale and soared through the piece's only well-known music, the second wedding night. Much of the score is a swill of Strauss's better operas, though there are lovely orchestral moments. Fabio Luisi, the excellent conductor, took care to make them shimmer.

The modernizing production, by director and designer David Fielding, who was making his Met debut, was first seen at the spunky Garsington outdoor festival in the U.K., and it is clearly not a budget breaker, though it has charm and imaginative moments. With its expressionistic set and lighting, the show avoids hokey evocations of antiquity. Fielding solved the problem of how to showcase the mussel by having Grove hold a sea shell, while wearing a gown that looked like oil-slicked algae. She has little to sing, unlike Aithra, whose high-flying music and mindless mutterings Damrau dispatched with audience- pleasing ease and a nice smile.

Strauss hated tenors and enjoyed torturing them with hideously difficult music. Poor Kerl left during the intermission, pleading illness and ceded Menelaus to Hendrick, another large man with a huge yet expressive voice. He pumped incredible volume and energy into the second act, without much result. ``Helen'' remained, to quote another line, ``alive but dead.''

``Die Aegyptische Helena'' runs for six more performances starting March 19 and ending April 7. Information: +1-212-362- 6000, or http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/season/.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Bloomberg's arts and leisure section, Muse. All opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this interview: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Burke at Jburke21@bloomberg.net.

Manuela HoelterhoffBloomberg