WORKS: Die ägyptische Helena
PERFORMER: Deborah Voigt, Carl Tanner, Celena Shafer, Jill Grove; Concert Chorale of New York, American SO/Leon Botstein
CATALOGUE NO: CD-80605
It may not have launched a thousand hits but Richard Strauss’s last collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal can certainly burn the ears. In the devoted hands of Leon Botstein, Strauss’s score shimmers and shakes, with an opening storm that is all wind machine and fury. And when Menelas finally forgives Helena – and never mind that business with Paris and the Trojan War – husband and wife are cloaked in one of those strings and brass apotheoses that only Strauss would have dare to have written in 1928.
By now Hofmannsthal had the measure of the Herr Doktor’s taste for the exotic. So a Mediterranean island provokes musical memories of Ariadne, while in the encampment under the Atlas Mountains, Salome seems to be rehearsing her striptease down in the orchestra.
Then there are parts for a small army of female voices, from soprano serving-maids to the omniscient mezzo Seashell, in truth a common or sea garden mussel and given a muscular performance by Jill Grove. There’s stylish singing from Celena Schafer as Poseidon’s girlfriend Aithra, who engineers the reconciliation between the King of Sparta and his errant wife. And Deborah Voigt’s Helena is a true Strauss thoroughbred in a performance that’s quite without fear, the voice big and bold and so secure. Tender, too, in the final duet with Menelas, delivering those unmistakably Straussian silvery notes at the top of the register. If Menelas is just another tenor punished by Strauss for not being a soprano, then Carl Tanner has the last laugh. Despite the cruel tessitura he’s in good voice to the end of this live performance.
As Leon Botstein reminds us in an eloquent essay in the accompanying booklet, Die ägyptische Helena is an opera about the meaning of marriage. Not a very fashionable subject, but in this performance required listening. Christopher Cook