United Kingdom Richard Strauss, Die ägyptische Helena: Soloists, Ensemble of Fulham Opera / Ben Woodward (conductor). St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 19.10.2021. (MB)
Director – Guido Martin-Brandis
Assistant director – Johan Ribbing
Producer – Sarah Heenan
Designs – Alexander McPherson
Lighting – Mitch Broomhead
Helena – Justine Viani
Menelas – Brian Smith Walters
Aithra – Luci Briginshaw
Altair – Oliver Gibbs
Da-Ud – Dominic J Walsh
Omniscient Mussel – Ingeborg Børch
Hermione – Liz Stock
Servants – Christine Buras, Natasha Elliott
Elves – Maggie Cooper, Donya Rafati Rosalind O’Dowd, Rebecca Moulton, Corinne Hart
Slaves – Kester Guy-Briscoe, Jack Stone, Robin Whitehouse, Graham Wheeler
A splendid evening from Fulham Opera, making an excellent case for the bizarrely, well-nigh criminally neglected (at least on Plague Island) Ägyptische Helena. That a major Strauss-Hofmannsthal opera was here receiving its staged London premiere beggars belief; such, alas, is our lot in Das Land ohne Musik. Sunlit uplands and German car manufacturers will doubtless one day come to our rescue, perhaps with a spot of ‘innovative jam’. In the meantime, hats off to this ever-enterprising company, not only for putting on the opera but for visibly and audibly winning a host of new converts. This seems actually to have been the British premiere of the so-called Vienna version of the work, first performed at the 1933 Salzburg Festival.
Reduced orchestrations have necessarily been in vogue for opera over the past year. This, however, was a far more radical arrangement from Paul Plummer, also at the piano, for small chamber ensemble (violin, cello, clarinet, horn, percussion, with piano and organ). The myriad phantasmagorical inflections of gold, azure, deep crimson, and other orchestral hues were of course largely absent, though often skilfully hinted at. What was remarkable, though, was how little one missed the full Straussian orchestra and, as with, say, the London Opera Company’s Tristan (review click here) a year ago, where one’s ears were led in novel appreciation and understanding. Hearing the piano so often in quasi-continuo role led me, for instance, to realise quite how much harmonic common ground there was with Ariadne auf Naxos — and thereby to muse on dramaturgical connections too. The general acuity of Ben Woodward’s direction of the score — well paced, well balanced, welcome ebb and flow — furthered that more generally, of course. It was a fascinating musical evening, even before we consider the singers.
With resourceful staging, exemplary in its narrative clarity, from Guido Martin-Brandis and the rest of his production team, that sense of belonging to the greater Straussian corpus was stronger than ever. The space of St Paul’s, Fulham and its altar too were used to frame a production, whose detailed Personenregie and costumed suggestiveness — essentially, antiquity mediated by 1920s exoticism and its new technologies — permitted one to draw one’s own conclusions without abdication of its own responsibility. The business of potions, inevitably leading one to think of Tristan parody was handled with commendable directness and clarity, enhancing rather than detracting from Hofmannsthal’s heavy, post-Frau ohne Schatten symbolism. To take another example, Hofmannsthal wrote of the notorious Omniscient Mussel to Strauss: ‘When I mention “gurgling”, I have in mind the noise of water “speaking” in a pipe. It is not absolutely vital that one should understand what it says; it might in fact be amusing’ if the Mussel ‘were to sound distorted like a voice on the telephone when one stands beside the receiver.’ There was, wisely, no such distortion here in performance, but that sense of the early age of the telephone and, more strongly, the wireless announcer were to be seen, framing the opera’s multiple historicisms and Freudian re-mythologisation, whilst also retaining a welcome sense of fun: Nietzsche’s ‘the Greeks were superficial — out of profundity!’
There was no superficiality, save in that very particular Nietzschean-Straussian anti-metaphysical sense, to the singing — and even in that respect, a fine balance was generally maintained with the more metaphysical requirements of Hofmannsthal and of Strauss’s Wagnerian inheritance. One could read, watch, and above all listen in different ways, which is just as it should be; one could hardly, though, fail to think the vocal artistry on show here fit to grace more glamorous stages. Justine Viani’s gleaming, glistening, forthright soprano seemed to me well-nigh ideal for Helena. This was not only a beautiful sound; the words were clear and meaningful too. Together, words, music, and gesture made more than the sum of their parts. Much the same could be said for the rest of the cast. Brian Smith Walters’s Menelas had unmistakeable roots in Siegmund. Every inch a Heldentenor, with that historic semi-baritonal hue so characteristic of Wagner roles, Smith Walters offered a moving, vulnerable portrayal very much in that Volsung line, though certainly not to be reduced to it. Luci Briginshaw’s Aithra enthralled and entranced, coloratura despatched not only with apparent ease but with definite yet properly ambiguous meaning. Ingeborg Børch brought welcome contrast of tone as the Mussel, yet similar clarity of words. The elf-chorus’s sound as a Nibelung parody was richly suggestive. All contributed to the evening’s success, but I must make final mention of Dominic J Walsh’s lovelorn, ineffably human Da-Ud.
Looking back in 1945 over his entire operatic career — give or take a tantalising hint of a Donkey’s Shadow — Strauss saw himself not only as having closed a chapter, even a book, but as having presented an ongoing dialogue, as much with himself as with ancient mythology: ‘Particularly in scenes such as Klyämnestra’s dream, the sister’s [Elektra’s] recognition, [Elektra’s] redemption through dance, the spiritual transformation of Menelas, Apollo’s kiss (from Daphne), and Jupiter’s farewell to the human world, my Greek operas have created musical symbols that may be taken for the last fulfilment of Greek longing.’ Such was what we saw and heard here.