Die Ägyptische Helena. Berlin Deutsche Oper, February 14th 2009. Production: Marco-Arturo Marelli. Cast: Ricarda Merberth (Helena), Robert Chafin (Menelaos), Laura Aikin (Aithra), Morten Frank Larsen (Altair). Coductor: Andrew Litton. Further information here
Apparently Richard Strauss and Hofmannsthal were surprised by the lack of success of Die Ägyptische Helena when it opened in 1928 at the Dresden Semperoper. From a musical point of view, its easy to see why as it contains some of Richard Strauss´ most glorious music, closely related to Die Frau Ohne Schatten. The action, however is too hopeless to be relayed here in detail (go here), however in brief: Helen of Troy and her cuckolded husband Menelaos have marital troubles, but are ultimately reconciled, helped by the sorceress Aithra. All while The Omniscient Mussel yells out prophecies and warnings from the sideline.
Marco-Arturo Marelli obviously has the major advantage that nobody really knows what this piece is about, thus the action as described in booklets is compared to Marelli´s vision as opposed to the other way around. Marelli, of the stylish Vienna Cappriccio, is equally stylish here, making efficient use of a revolving set, placing the action within three frames: The war of the past; Aithras world of the present, complete with faded oriental charm; and lastly, the fantasy world of Zweite Brauchtnacht with furniture turned upside-down. Very elegantly done. Complete with repositioning and cutting of a few scenes to make the action "believable for the public", in Marelli´s word.
As Helen of Troy, one has to be able to sing Strauss´ soaring tones as well as look like the most beautiful woman in the world. Ricarda Merbeth with her expressive, though slightly dry voice gets reasonably away with it, matched by a vivacious Laura Aikin as Aithra. Robert Chavin was indisposed as Menelaos, but fought his way through the evening. Finally, Andrew Litton succeeded in bringing out myriads of details from the orchestra in an elegantly subdued performance.
Clearly one of the best performances I have seen at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in recent years, if not the best.
The critics wrote:
Tagesspiegel: picturesque staging from Marelli..praise for the singers
Berliner Morgenpost: A triumph
Die Welt: Deutsche Oper masters Richard Strauss´ difficult work with bravour
Ricarda Merberth: 3-4
Robert Chavin: 3-4
Laura Aikin: 4
Morten Frank Larsen:3
Marelli´s production: 5
Andrew Litton: 4
Overall impression: 4
Photographs from the company website.