The Met’s 2007 staging of “Die Agyptische Helena” (The Egyptian Helen) is only its second production ever of Richard Strauss’ rare 1928 opera, which disappeared from the repertory the year after the composer wrote it with frequent collaborator-librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. This has always been considered a troubled work, and anyone who has seen a few dozen Broadway tuners can spot the all-too-familiar problem: great music, incomprehensible book. For his Met debut, director-designer David Fielding could hardly have chosen a less felicitous project. Suffice to say that Helen of Troy has claimed yet another victim.
“Helena” is often referred to as the opera that boasts a character named the Omniscient Mussel (Jill Grove). Some translations call it the Omniscient Seashell, but whatever. Any production team must confront the dilemma of making dramatic sense of Hofmannsthal’s freewheeling take on Greek mythology, recounting how Menelas (Torsten Kerl) reclaimed his philandering wife, Helena (Deborah Voight), after she dumped him for Paris, launched those many ships and leveled a city.
Inspired by Euripides, Hofmannsthal posits that there was a phantom Helena, who caused all the trouble with Paris, as well as a real Helena, who has been vacationing for a decade or so in Egypt, hence the opera’s title.
Hofmannsthal considered “Helena” his greatest libretto, but artists often say such things about their latest work, and sure enough, the scribe died only a year after he completed this farrago of styles. You name it, “Helena” has got it: Greek myths, elves from German legend, Freudian symbolism, domestic schmaltz.
Fielding runs with the overall eclecticism by placing the action on a surrealistic landscape of radically forced perspective (remember those dreamscapes by Salvador Dali in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”?) and populating it with a red-carpet-ready leading lady, some punkish elves and a Patricia Field baby doll in the person of Helena and Menelas’ daughter, Hermione (Deena Sydney Fink).
Giant doors open and close periodically to reveal a Japonaise ocean, a football-field-size bed and a huge cut-out of that man-on-the-run from the poster for Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can.” What begins in German expressionism ends in Hollywood literalism with an ocean liner ready to shuttle off the Menelas family.
The concept may have been to emphasize Hofmannsthal’s variety of styles, but in performance, Fielding’s mishmash works instead to deride not only the libretto but Strauss’ lush, occasionally bombastic romanticism.
Everybody calls her the most beautiful woman in the world. So what kind of voice does Helen of Troy possess? In act one on opening night, Voight’s wiry column of sound more often poked through Strauss’ wall of orchestration than soared over it, but she finished strong, the edginess having turned into one big, sharp sword by opera’s end.
As Menelas, the epitome of loyalty and fidelity, Kerl did not live up to his role’s rep and withdrew after one act due to a throat ailment. Michael Hendrick replaced him and can be commended for providing quite a bit more voice.
Top vocal honors belonged to Diana Damrau, who played Aithra, a sorceress whom Hofmannsthal gives full responsibility for the telling of his tale. The soprano sounded as beautiful as Helena was reported to have looked. Last season, Damrau delighted with her light but fiendish coloratura work in “The Barber of Seville.” In “Helena,” she impressed as a future Salome.