by Isidor Saslav
(Swans - May 7, 2007) In early 2007 The Metropolitan Opera revived, for a limited number of performances, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's fifth operatic collaboration, Die Aegyptische Helena, which premiered in 1928. At the Metropolitan international stars like soprano Deborah Voigt sang Helen of Troy and tenor Torsten Kerl sang King Menelaus. Fabio Luisi agilely conducted Strauss's music. I saw the performance on April 4th.
The plot of this opera deals with the thorny question of how King Menelaus is going to be reconciled with his wife, Helen of Troy, who has been living very far away with her lover for the past nine years. Now that Menelaus has finally got her back, after sacking Troy to do it, how are they going to reconstruct their relationship? As they say nowadays in Dr. Phil-like jargon, they're "going to have to work their way through this."
If I had been employed as an "opera doctor" in 1928 in Dresden I would have sent the following message to composer and librettist about their recent premiere:
When I left the opera house after the first act I was in tears: I thought to myself that this opera has to be among your greatest works. The reconciliation between Menelaus and Helen of Troy, after the strife, jealousy, and aggression which had filled the rest of the act and the music that drove this emotional transformation home has to represent one of the most moving moments in all of opera. But after seeing the second, final act I have the following suggestion to you both: you must switch the music that concludes the second act with the music that concludes the first act. Then the audience will go out into the night uplifted, transformed, and full of sympathetic happiness for all concerned, especially for the two creators of this marvelous work.
However, I wasn't there, and would probably not have been listened to anyway; but that, I think, is the key to this at times very beautiful work having been so neglected and overshadowed by the other five collaborative works of this fecund partnership (Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Ariadne Auf Naxos, Arabella) in all the decades since its composition. Indeed this was only the second production at the Metropolitan of this opera in the 80 years since its American debut production in 1928 by the same company featuring Maria Jeritza as Helen. I had been reading the title of this work over and over when studying about Strauss's works and wondered if a production of it would ever come my way. Well, it finally did: thank you, Metropolitan Opera!
Thanks to the Met also for bringing us in recent seasons Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini, (the very first thing Wagner saw when he arrived in Paris in 1840. He later used it as a model for Die Meistersinger); Halevy's La Juive, and Dvorak's Russalka (the first four notes of whose Song To The Moon are identical to the first four notes of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Harold Arluck [later Arlen] must have been listening to a 78 rpm of the Song To The Moon in his home town of Buffalo when he was a boy).
The Berlioz got its first production ever at the Met in 2003 after 168 years since its first Parisian production; La Juive was a 65-year-old revival, and I'm not sure when the last production of Russalka took place there. But not that they should be resting on their laurels: When do we get to see any opera by Meyerbeer, Wagner's first three, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi; and Strauss's first attempts, Guntram and Feuersnot? Not to mention Puccini's first two Le Villi and Edgar, and Rossini's first, Il Cambiale Di Matrimonio? Not exactly unknown composers, these. If any of these operas have been presented I wasn't around to hear about them, so send me a note next time and I'll be coming tout de suite. Patience, patience.
I find it strange that Hofmannsthal, the libretto's creator, didn't see the flaw in Die Aegyptische Helena's dramaturgy, namely that the emotional progression within each of the two acts, as described above, is essentially identical to the other, and that the same story is being told twice. And unless Strauss had been able to conclude the opera with music even greater than the music that concluded the first act then he should have stopped right there. (The program notes did mention that Strauss loved Hofmannsthal's first act but had lots of trouble with the second. That's exactly the impression that comes across the footlights.) Unfortunately, in my opinion, Strauss's music, ever serviceable, colorful, and text-underlining as always, could not reach new heights to conclude the work, especially necessary in view of the repetitive story line. If the opera had remained a one-acter, which it easily could have, it would have been sensational, worthy to stand beside all his other greatest works. The overwhelming emotional transformation that concluded the first act reminded me of Daphne, Strauss's third-last opera, from 1938 (done so brilliantly by the New York City Opera a few seasons ago). In Daphne, the heroine likewise reaches emotional transfiguration at the opera's finale upon being turned into a tree by the gods at her request.
I took a personal interest in this performance of Die Aegyptische Helena because of my 10-year association with Stephen F. Austin State University, a school tucked into the Piney Woods and the national forests of East Texas, in the town of Nacogdoches. (No, Virginia, Texas is not all sagebrush, cactus, and desert.) For 40 years in the music department of this prettiest campus in Texas there taught a legendary teacher of singing (the vocal and opera departments are special jewels in the music department's crown) the late David Jones. Jones produced two singers who, since graduating from his tutelage, have called the Metropolitan Opera their home: mezzo soprano Jill Grove and soprano Yvonne Gonzales (now Redman). Die Aegyptische Helena was the first Met opera I'd seen in which both of SFA's stars appeared in the same opera at the same time. Grove sang the role of Omniscient Mussel and Gonzales Redman was in the chorus of elves, both in the first act. I had earlier heard Grove sing Erda most spookily in the Met's Ring Cycle in 2004.
One of the problems of reaching into the trunks of time to resurrect hidden jewels of the operatic repertoire is: where to find the singers to sing them? Especially when the opera in question boasts and demands ear-popping virtuosity from every lead role. Such was the case at the New York City Opera's (NYCO) productions of Rossini's La Donna Del Lago of 1819 and Haendel's Flavio of 1723 presented on April 5th and 6th recently. Fortunately, since the days of Callas, Sutherland, Sills, and Horne, whose virtuosity revived gems by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Haendel, the women have been joined by the men: the era of the virtuoso counter-tenor has been with us for a decade or two now. Singers like David Daniel and those in the NYCO roster list such as David Walker and Matthew White, and those making their NYCO debuts this season, Daniel Bubeck, Randall Scotting, and Gerald Thompson are ready to continue exploring for hidden gold amidst the long-lost operas of the above mentioned superstar composers of the past. These composers often demanded the long-outlawed castrati, available to them in their own day, to carry the operatic ball (if one may use that expression) down the field. But since the last castrato made his last recording in 1906, since then it was goodbye to large chunks of the virtuoso operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Haendel as opposed to their more easily managed comic operas.
George Bernard Shaw, perhaps the greatest music critic who ever lived, though he gave up his last official music critical newspaper position in 1894, nevertheless continued to write the occasional music critical article right down to the year of his death. Just a few months before Shaw died on November 2, 1950, he published his very last music criticism, in Everybody's Magazine, We Sing Better Than Our Grandfathers. In this article Shaw pooh-poohed the notion that the singers around 1900 represented a Golden Age of vocalism since which the art had decayed disastrously. Nonsense, Shaw said, trotting forth the names of current singers and comparing them highly favorably to the so-called legends of the past. After all, he, Shaw, had been around to hear all those people and to review them, and he knew all their failings very well. He reminisced that as a boy he had heard Il Trovatore in Dublin in the 1860s. When Manrico was heard to sing his first off-stage declamation the startled Shaw asked his grown up companion, a teacher of singing, what that was. Shaw received the reply, "That was a pig under a gate."
Well, after hearing the two described operas by Rossini and Haendel at the NYCO I can only concur with Shaw, we certainly sing better than our grandfathers. The incredible virtuosity both male and female that greeted our ears from one end of these operas to the other made us realize again what a fortunate operatic time we are living through.
Rossini's La Donna Del Lago (The Lady Of The Lake, after Walter Scott) retells the familiar Cinderella story of the humble young lady and a prince charming. But in this particular version the lady, Elena, sung beautifully by soprano Alexandra Pendatchanska, does not know that the Prince, Prince Uberto, sung by tenor Barry Banks, is a prince, only that he is an unwelcome and unloved rival suitor to her true love, the highland warrior, Malcolm, sung by mezzo-soprano Laura Vlasak Nolen. Uberto in disguise sees Elena by chance one day in the woods and falls instantly in love with her. And despite all the virtuoso singing with which Uberto opens the second act, brilliantly sung by Banks, his suit ultimately proves fruitless. (How much great singing does it take to win a woman's heart?) When Elena pleads to the prince for political amnesty for her family, Uberto reveals his true identity, forgives everyone and all ends happily. This opera is a feast of virtuosity from beginning to end and deserves all the revivals it can get, depending on the supply of great singers able to be found for it, as was the case in this glorious production.
Anyone who experiences Flavio, Haendel's domestic comedy among the royals of 1723, must demand back all his tuition money from his music history courses in college. There we were told that the first domestic comic opera dates from 1726: La Serva Padrona of the young Pergolesi, inserted as an intermezzo between the acts of the heavy-hitting opera seria going on around it. In this little comic opera, as the title implies, the master of the house is led around by the nose by a too clever and flirtatious servant girl.
Well, in Flavio, the too clever and flirtatious Teodata leads her master, the Emperor Flavio, around by the nose as does the other pair of lovers in the plot. But besides all the comic goings-on there is an undercurrent of tragedy when one of the lover's parents, Lotario, is slain in an honor duel. One can't help but think of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787) of 64 years later as well as the title Mozart and da Ponte gave to their work of mixed genres, "dramma giocosa." But all these goings on are to be found not in a lighthearted intermezzo but in the plot of an opera seria itself. Actually, Haendel himself had created a similar sort of light hearted comedy among the royals within an opera seria with his Agrippina of 1709, which I saw a few seasons ago. Agrippina was written while Haendel was still resident in Italy just before coming to England at the invitation of George II, his fellow Hanoverian, and establishing the vogue for Italian opera among his new fellow countrymen.
The program note writer for Flavio, Cori Ellison, pointed out several other of Haendel's mixed-genre operas over the course of his career. This style seemed to suit Haendel and his librettists very well. So it seems that progress toward the later Mozart-da Ponte style was actually going along on two tracks at the same time: the intermezzi domestic comedies but starting even earlier right in the opera seria itself. Ellison points to the Venetian theater as the likely origination spot of these operas of mixed genre.
We were also taught in our music history classes that ensemble finales, where all the characters line up at the end of the opera and summarize philosophically and musically all that has been going on in the course of the evening, were a feature of the development of the Italian comic opera in the 1750s and 1760s and it took some pioneer work to get this reform established. Well, the textbook writers must have never seen Flavio because sure enough, there were all six of the remaining characters at the end of the opera all singing in a classic ensemble finale just as if this had been Figaro, Don Giovanni, or Cosi Fan Tutte, which Flavio, with its cynical sexual outlook and plottings also quite resembles. But this was 1723, two generations before Mozart's and da Ponte's heyday. Flavio resembles not only Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte, but The Marriage of Figaro as well. The conspiring servants who embarrass the flirtatious but unsuspecting emperor certainly resemble Susannah and Figaro bringing the Count to order in 1786.
I must say that I never even heard the name "Flavio" before I saw it on the NYCO list. This was perhaps because the opera got its last Baroque era performance in 1733 and wasn't seen again till the 1960s at the Haendel Festival in Goettingen in 1967. So perhaps all those music historians also never had the chance to see it either before they issued all those erroneous summaries of the history of the Italian comic opera. What a little-known gem of operatic history is Flavio!
But now that we have all our modern countertenors, two of whom, David Walker and Gerald Thompson, sang so virtuosically in this production, we can continue to revive Haendel's wonderfully inventive and lively music. In Haendel's operas every aria has its own characteristic and brilliantly executed emotion, a style characteristic generally of opera seria but done to especial perfection by Haendel. Despite Messiah, Haendel's operatic genius is still not heard often enough. I saw Haendel's Rodelinda of 1726 a few seasons ago. I was struck by its prescient foreshadowing of Beethoven's Fidelio, (of 1806-14) complete with heroic wife saving her emperor husband from a dark dungeon. The next time I visit a Haendel opera I'll be sure to be on the lookout for the opera of two or three generations later, which it prefigures.
Please keep Swans flying.financially. Thank you.