Litton Lavishes Loving Care on Orchestration of Die ägyptische Helena

GermanyGermany Strauss-Wochen (3) – Die ägyptische Helena: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding) and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Andrew Litton (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 8.4.2016. (MB)

Strauss, Die ägyptische Helena


Helena – Ricarda Merbeth
Menelas – Stefan Vinke
Hermione – Selina Isl
Aïthra – Laura Aikin
Altaïr – Derek Welton
Da-Ud – Andrew Dickinson
First Servant – Alexandra Hutton
Second Servant – Stephanie Weiss
First Elf – Elbenita Kajtazi
Second Elf – Alexandra Ionis
Third Elf – Rebecca Raffell
Omniscient Mussel – Ronnita Miller


Marco Arturo Marelli (director, set designs)
Dagmar Niefind (costumes)
Andreas K.W. Meyer (dramaturgy)
Claudio Gotta (Spielleitung)

Gratitude to the Deutsche Oper for staging Die ägyptische Helena, in generally excellent musical performances, is, alas, mixed with sadness at Marco Arturo Marelli’s production. Works such as this really need help from a director. Here, the apparently non-ironic (if irony were intended, rarely if ever did it come across) glossiness of Marelli’s staging, the sort of thing that might be considered a little adventurous for the Met, threatened to smother the work completely. Were this a self-reflexive acknowledgement of that quotation from Schoenberg I cited at the beginning of this series, it might have been a splendid, meta-theatrical starting-point. To refresh our memories, Schoenberg responded to Strauss’s typically faux-philistine remark, ‘In each of my works, there must be a melody which can be understood by the most stupid fellow in the hall’, with the charge: ‘Problems arise for him and are solved by him in the same way: he misunderstands them. But it cannot be disputed that he has dealt with them: he has hidden them under a coating of sugar icing, so that the public sees only the … world of a Marzipanmeister. This is not the way of thinking of a man whom God has given a mission.’ Maybe there is an apologia to be made for Marelli’s expensive high-camp, but I spoke to more than one friend afterwards who was resolutely of the mind that this was not a good opera at all. Opportunities to change their minds will not, alas, be frequent.

Is it a good opera? Well, I suppose it depends what one means. No one in his (or her) right mind would say this was another Elektra, or, for that matter, Capriccio. But what is lost here is any sense of lightness of touch. It is, I remain convinced, in many respects a work of considerable wit. Delve beneath the alluring surface and there is real bite. It is all too easy, when one does not listen to the work, to scorn Hofmannsthal’s ambition, inspired by the artistry of Maria Jeritza, to write a successor of sorts to La belle Hèlene, but an ear – and an eye – for irony are all that is needed. Glitziness, like any brand of spectacle, can generally be put to dramatic use, perhaps especially operatic use, but Marelli seems unable to distinguish between, say, Strauss and Korngold. Just when Marelli has an idea that might be worthy of development, for instance the light allusion to the background of warfare – it is, after all, all ‘there’ in the work – it is quickly dropped, so as not to scare away the horses. Non-ironic Orientalism, school of David McVicar, does not help: have we not gone beyond finding veiled women intrinsically ‘mysterious’? Even if Strauss and Hofmannsthal had not, that is all the more reason for a critical approach on stage. Something can be made of the undeniable differences between composer and librettist; something should be made of it. That is surely the thinking director’s task.

Where a Stefan Herheim – we desperately need more Strauss from him! – might perhaps have made such play of bad taste gloss in dramatic counterpart to any number of other themes, Marelli seems content, not only to take Strauss at face value, but to avoid any questioning of why Strauss might have been writing in the style that he did, of what the implications of such writing might be. There is little, or no, sense of actually listening to the contours of the score, let alone of a critical response to it. There are many possible avenues might take from a more Konzept-driven standpoint. Is this unhappy married couple not the next instalment in Strauss’s Intermezzo domestic saga? How might we relate the work to Elektra? To Crusading operas such as the Armide of Strauss’s esteemed Gluck? The sense given from time to time, and especially in the closing scene of luxury tourism is welcome, but alas it is not enough to provide a coherent concept, and is for the most part too little, too late. And could we not at least have some sense of the Omniscient Mussel – yes, I know it is really a shell rather than the bivalve itself, but that makes it no less bizarre – being more than a housekeeper with somewhat garish dress sense?

Enough, now, of all that! The musical performances offered a good deal of compensation. Once again, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper proved itself to be a Strauss ensemble of the first rank. Even at his more dramatically dubious, as I shall admit he is here on occasion, Strauss is a prince amongst orchestrators. That is probably misleading, since there is not really material to consider separately from its orchestration; that was certainly how Strauss’s writing sounded under the loving care of Andrew Litton. Litton clearly relishes the score, and why would he not? We hear references to a number of earlier scores, both by Strauss, and others; sly Tristan-isms were certainly given their due on this occasion. And the colours! The gold, the purple, the scarlet, the azure, and so much else, the transformation of one into the other; the steel with which it is accomplished; all that and much more came across powerfully indeed – yes, luxuriantly, yet with a proper sense of tonal, timbral, and dramatic hierarchies, and their interaction, whether successful or, even on occasion, less so. Again, if only the staging had made something similar of the work’s terms of reference.

Ricarda Merbeth gave an excellent account of Helen’s part. A few instances of less than comprehensible diction could readily be forgiven for the many passages of gloriously Straussian lyrical abandon. Even I must admit that Menela(u)s does not signal Strauss’s finest hour: a graver indictment of his writing for tenor than the more celebrated, often exaggerated other ‘cases’. That said, Stefan Vinke barked more than is necessary, let alone desirable. On the positive side, he never flagged. If only we could hear Andreas Schager in this role. Laura Aikin’s performance as the Sorceress, Aïthra, seemed to me an unqualified success. She conveyed a great deal of the mysterious ambiguity missing from the production, without sacrifice to verbal and musical requirements. Derek Welton’s Altaïr was an intelligent, forthright portrayal. Andrew Dickinson’s Da-Ud revealed a beautiful lyric tenor. And yes, as the shell whom we do not call a shell, and who on this occasion was not a shell, Ronnita Miller excelled. Hers is a rich, deep mezzo voice. I look forward to hearing more from many of these artists.

Mark Berry


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