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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Opera Review: Come Sail Away

Die Ägyptische Helena at the Met.
by Paul Pelkonen
Love conch-ers all: Deborah Voigt and friend. Photo © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Monday night at the Met, Deborah Voigt gave an incandescent performance in the title role of Richard Strauss’ Die Ägyptische Helena. Her supple soprano sailed through this supremely difficult part with ease, navigating a score that is so difficult that it is either cut heavily or simply not performed. To his credit, Fabio Luisi led a completely uncut version of the score.

Ms. Voigt, who recorded this work in concert with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, sliced through the rich orchestral fabric, ably conducted by Fabio Luisi, with ease and grace. This might be the soprano's greatest triumph in a long Met career that has included Aida, Sieglinde, and will soon lead to Minnie and Brunnhilde.

In this opera, Strauss wrote not one, but two killer soprano parts. The other is that of the sorceress Aithra, wife of Poseidon and Queen of the Sea. German soprano Diana Damrau proved an able foil to Ms. Voigt, matching her note for note. The two voiced blended in the duets, producing that trademark Strauss sound of divas in full flight over an ocean of strings and brass. Ms. Damrau acted this challenging part with humor--her Aithra is a cross between all-powerful sorceress and spoiled trophy wife. Interestingly, her husband Poseidon was added to the action as a mute part, an effective dramatic device.

As Menelaus, tenor Michael Hendrick (replacing an indisposed Torsten Kerl for yet another performance) coped well with one of the most unlovable parts in opera. If Strauss wrote lovely, if difficult parts for his soprano leads, he was downright sadistic to his tenors. Menelaus is cursed with a difficult high range, and a generally unlovable role in the drama.

Hendrick struggled to get over the orchestra in the second act. But for the most part, he proved a serviceable heldentenor, and his acting proved that the Metropolitan Opera believes in thorough coaching for its backups. The tenor star of the evening was Garrett Sorenson as Da-ud, who made his character's all-too-brief scene an exercise in melodic singing.

David Fielding’s new production of Helena solves many of the opera’s problems. Intelligent decisions can be seen in this staging, imported to the Met from the Garsington Opera. He created fresh ideas and solved many of the opera’s problems, including the chorus of elves and the giant singing seashell in Act One. That latter character, described in the libretto as The Omniscient Mussel and usually voiced by an offstage actress, is this work's biggest dramatic liability.

Instead of some large, ugly prop out of “Little Chip Shop of Horrors” or an undersea version of Fafner from Siegfried, this staging presented the singing shellfish as contralto Jill Groves. Wearing a black body-stocking, she stalked the stage like a Greco-German ninja: a walking shadow carrying a conch shell. That shell was a crucial prop--at the climax of the opera Menelaus and Helen drank the magic potion from it to resove their marital woes.

The entire setting was on a raked stage with two massive doors that opened and closed to reveal Menelaus and Helen's wedding bed as well as various aspects of the natural world--the oceans under Poseidon's sway and the deserts of North Africa. Combining those visuals with a study in the use of gels and colored lighting, Mr. Fielding created a rich visual palette that sustained the dramatic interest without succumbing to the unfortunate baggage (i.e. the mollusc) that has dragged down this opera since its 1928 premiere. One only hopes that the success of Strauss' Helena in this production will lead New York's biggest opera houses to blow the dust off other ignored Strauss masterpieces: Daphne, Die Schweigsame Frau and Die Liebe der Danae.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.