Part Two of a report from the Richard Strauss-Woche at the Deutsche Oper
After two standard repertoire pieces of Salome and Elektra that opened the Strauss-Woche here in Berlin, we moved onto relatively unfamiliar territory with two rarely performed, Grecian themed operas. The first one, Die ägyptische Helena, Op. 75, had its premiere at the Dresden Semperoper in 1928. Unlike the composer’s other collaborations with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, this work never gained a solid foothold in the standard repertoire. Von Hofmannsthal based the libretto on Homer’s Odyssey and worked by Euripides. The rather convoluted story revolves around sorceress Aithra’s attempt to save the marriage of Helen and Menelaus, who accuses his wife of being unfaithful. Through magic, Aithra convinces Menelaus that the Helen of Troy is an illusion and that the “real” Egyptian Helen is faithful to him. Given that Freud and the Subconscious were all the rage at the time of composition, there’s a strong psychoanalytic streak in the libretto.
Strauss composed it with the great Czech soprano Maria Jeritza in mind. Not only is Helena a vocally treacherous role, audiences have high expectations when it comes to a singer who’s supposed to play “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Jeritza, known for her vocal and personal beauty, was deemed an ideal Helena. But the Semperoper bean counters balked at her huge fee and instead hired Elisabeth Rethberg, a soprano with a beautiful voice but less personal charisma, to sing the premiere. Jeritza sang the subsequent premieres in Vienna and New York. The Czech soprano had a big success thanks to her glamorous persona and generous vocalism, solidifying her reputation as the definitive Helena.
This little bit of opera lore touches upon an interesting issue that continues to this day – is it fair as audience members to expect a singer to not only sound good but look good – or at least look believable? Given that we’re in the visually-oriented 21st century, audiences expect singers to be visually credible. Remember the brouhaha over Deborah Voigt and the “Little Black Dress” at the ROH Ariadne, or the attack on Tara Erraught’s Glyndebourne Octavian by members of the British press? It appears nothing has changed. When one is impersonating Helen of Troy, well, the bar is set awfully high for the soprano.
I recall attending a staged performance of Die ägyptische Helena some years ago, where a wonderful soprano with a beautiful voice and face sang Helena. She happened to be also very generous-figured, especially when paired with a slim tenor as Menelaus. Her entrance in Act One was met with some barely suppressed giggles around me. When she sang her first line, roughly translated as “The table is set – let’s eat,” shockingly it elicited audible laughter from a few people in the audience. Of course, there’s no excuse for such boorish behaviour, but it only underscores the premium our society places on superficial beauty.
Thankfully no such embarrassing moment transpired at the Deutsche Oper, where the audience was on model behaviour. Die ägyptische Helena was the attractive Ricarda Merbeth, a jugendlich dramatischer sopran in the great Wagner-Strauss tradition. Merbeth showed impressive volume, long breath line and easy top – up to a high D in the Act Two aria “Zweite Brautnacht.” Her husband Menelaus was German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke, who was a sensational Siegfried at the COC just a couple of months ago.
While Strauss writes beautifully for the soprano voice, his tenors often are given rather ungrateful music. Menelaus happens to be one of the more rewarding, if fiendishly difficult, Strauss tenor roles. Vinke was up to the task, his trumpet of a voice matching Merbeth decibel for decibel, even a high C – not subtle but exciting. The two engaged in what Anna Russell would have coined “highly competitive singing” especially in the Finale, with the huge orchestra thundering away. I have to say there’s something rather unrelenting about Strauss’s orchestration, not unlike having an excessively rich 8-course dinner in front of you. Strauss devotees will want it all, but for others, its attraction may wear a bit thin after 20 minutes of non-stop triple-forte singing! And one wonders why this piece is so rarely performed?
The sorceress Aithra was American dramatic coloratura Laura Aikin, whom I haven’t heard in some time. After a steady diet of Lulu, Marie (Die Soldaten), Emilia Marty and the like, her voice remains fresh and appealing, a testament to her technique. Then there’s the weird character of the Omniscient Mussel, here taken by contralto Ronnita Miller. I recall seeing a funny historical production sketch where an enormous clam shell opens and up pops the head of the singer! These days, it’s usually staged with the singer holding a huge conch shell to her ear. The stage director Marco Arturo Marelli chooses to go the High Camp route for this production, and the result is colourful and entertaining, actually a preferable solution than to take this piece too seriously. Here, the Omniscient Mussel has the requisite conch shell, but also a portable TV to report on her prophecies of the shipwreck! It’s an elaborate production, complete with a revolving set that works beautifully for scene changes, a relief from the single unit sets that Regie productions seem to favour these days.
Die Liebe der Danae is a late work. Strauss composed it in 1938-40 but died before its Salzburg premiere in 1952. By the 30’s, Strauss’s longtime librettist Hofmannsthal had died, and Strauss started working with Josef Gregor. This was one of their three collaborations, the other two being Friedenstag and Daphne. While none has a strong hold on the standard repertoire, Daphne and Die Liebe do receive occasional revivals, especially in German houses. If Die Liebe has stronger music than Helena, that strength doesn’t extend to the story! In a nutshell, it’s a tale of marriage of convenience versus true love, with various disguises and mistaken identities thrown in for good measure, a mix of comic and the serious, all suitably operatic!
The music is glorious, particularly Act 3, with the interlude, the Farewell of Jupiter to Danae, and the duet between Midas and Danae – in that abandoned road setting that reminds me of the Covent Garden Manon Lescaut Act 4! Act 3 alone is enough to convince anyone of the genius of Strauss – it is one continuous lyrical outpouring, with the composer at his most divine. The director is Kirsten Harms, who created this production in 2011, near the end of her tenure as the Intendant of Deutsche Oper. If her Elektra was pretty straight forward, this Die Liebe is more idiosyncratic. The production is visually very striking, not least is the grand piano that gets hoisted upside down to the top of the stage during the beginning of the opera when creditors take all the paintings and valuables in the palace of the bankrupt King Pollux. There the piano remains at the top for the rest of the opera, even through Act 3 when Danae descends into poverty. For those curious about this production, I can highly recommend the commercial DVD on the Arthaus label with Manuela Uhl and Mark Delavan (Jupiter).
It was a musically wonderful evening despite some uneven singing from the principals. Soprano Manuela Uhl was a visually stunning Danae. Her pianissimos were exquisite and her fortissimos strong. Probably a bit fatigued from having sung Chrysothemis two nights earlier, Uhl sounded occasionally unsteady and she paced herself for the big moments with bursts of sound. An announcement was made that tenor Raymond Very (Midas) was suffering from a bad cold but had agreed to sing. It turned out he had no problems at all, sounding actually quite fabulous. It was American bass-baritone Mark Delavan (Jupiter) who ran into heavy weather, sounding rough and strained at the top. He sang his long Farewell in Act 3 with seriously reduced volume. Delavan is a veteran and he gave a moving performance despite not being at his best. Elsewhere, Belgian tenor Thomas Blondelle, who was so good as Herod three nights earlier, contributed an excellent Merkur. The chorus plays a very important role in this opera, and they lived up to its very fine reputation. But the star of the evening was conductor Sebastian Weigle, a Straussian through and through, not to mention the magnificent Deutsche Oper Orchestra. It’s performances like this that makes it all worthwhile.
For Part I of Joseph So’s Letters From Berlin (Salome And Elektra) see here.