Monday, March 26, 2007

Can he forgive her?

If Hugo von Hofmannsthal erred in Die Ägyptische Helena -- and he's been accused of much -- it was to make Menelaus (a tenor!) the main character of the piece. For surely he knew Strauss' treatment of tenors.* And perhaps it was this that made him go ballistic at the substitution of the correct, accomplished but somewhat dull Elisabeth Rethberg -- the Deborah Voigt of her day -- for glitzy stage animal Maria Jeritza at the piece's premiere. For a star like Jeritza can command the audience's attention when neither singing nor advancing the plot, and convince all that this story -- like the Trojan War's -- is absolutely all about her, and that the Strauss soprano bits she gets are, in fact, the evening's point.

To be fair, of course, Deborah Voigt may not be the Deborah Voigt of her day any more. The voice has shed the last of its fat and become something new (even since last season): from top to bottom there's now an edge to the sound that's interesting but sometimes acidic. And yet she still excels where she excelled -- the vocalism. With the rest she's no longer uncomfortable, as her older self on occasion was, but it's still not where energy and danger are. None will mistake her presence for Karita Mattila's.

But the crisis of the piece is Menelaus'; Helena, as written, remains static. Like Wozzeck, all value in his world disintegrates as he faces his beloved's infidelity, and... Well, things work out better for the Greek King. And why not? Poor Wozzeck loves a woman, and a hard-pressed one at that, while Menelaus is attached to Helena, the embodiment of man's universal (as he uncomfortably discovers in the desert) and unlimited valuation of woman, without which he would have had neither Trojan War nor child (which is to say, no human race).

So Helena is, while Menelaus must carry the drama. But this clashes with the musical aspects of the piece. Strauss' characteristic cruelty to tenors is almost absurd here -- and as most companies will cast this for and around the soprano anyway, even a tolerable assumption requires some luck. Further, Strauss -- again characteristically -- makes much of the opera's lyric set pieces, while the in-between sounds pretty much like loud filler. (I would have liked to see the contemplated singspiel version actually happen.) Unfortunately "the rest" includes much of what makes Menelaus sympathetic or even comprehensible.

And yet there's enough beauty in score and text to make an absorbing, worthwhile night at the opera, despite a useless, cheap-looking production (the ridiculous final curtain should've been sufficient grounds for booing) and individual performances that, while pretty good, don't demand huge praise. (Diana Damrau's deepwater Despina of an Aithra was of most interest.) My thanks to the Met for doing it, but could they cast someone more congenial for Jeritza parts (Ariadne, the Empress, Helena, and even Tosca) at some point?

[* My copy of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence is elsewhere, so I've forgotten how much discussion of voice types actually came up for this opera.]

UPDATE (4/1): Straussmonster has offered detailed thoughts on the production.

Friday, March 16, 2007


Outside my window here, it doesn't look like I've been snowed out of New York and Monday's second Helena, but that's what seems to have happened.

Of course, from others' early returns this may be a reprieve of sorts.

UPDATE (3/22): Back in the city, and it looks like I'll be at Helena tomorrow. Review to follow.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In brief

Nietzsche's praise of Wagner as "our greatest miniaturist in music" was not, of course, entirely a compliment. But there's something to it. Meistersinger, for example, begins to climax at its finest, most intimate point, as all private strands between the principals harmonize in the quintet "Selig, wie die Sonne". And it's this singular private kernel of perfection that makes the following public scene the greatest in opera: the rightness of the world quietly achieved doesn't break or slip, but radiates out -- methodically, over orchestra, stage, scene, and public until, with the most ecstatic trill in the canon (at which Hei-Kyung Hong makes a decent stab), Eva crowns Walther and all in creation is well...

Almost. Hans-Joachim Ketelson's effectively cartoonish Beckmesser may be true to Wagner's intended caricature of a critic, but the piece was much richer with Thomas Allen (the 2001 Beckmesser, seen on the DVD of that revival). Allen's character felt as understandably and deeply as his young rival -- if in a prickly, ineloquent, inappropriate way -- and his spite was full of an old man's fear. Beckmesser's loss, here a bit of derision, becomes with Allen a sad (and funny) necessity. (In fact I'd have liked even more humaneness: at San Francisco's last Meistersinger, director Hans-Peter Lehmann had Beckmesser and Sachs -- Allen and Morris, in fact -- actually together at the end. This sort of thing is often a cheap and horrible idea -- Ariadne is worst abused by such license -- but I think it improves Wagner's comedy.)

But never mind that caveat: there is no substitute for seeing Act III well-sung and well-conducted in the house. Go.

*     *     *

Simon Boccanegra is, like Oedipus, the story of a usurper. (Simon does get into office through the process, it's true, but it's quite clearly tainted.) This explains -- or rather stands for -- why the story ends with his undoing, but it also made me more receptive to Thomas Hampson in the title part. He's far from the classic "Verdi baritone", but the Hampsonisms for which he's taken much stick over the decades have, with the accretion of grit and a hint of hoarseness, aged into interesting versions of themselves. It sounds both right and a bit out of place -- much as an old pirate might seem, even after twenty-five years as Doge.

This was a terrifically effective show all around, not least Fabio Luisi in the pit. Many seemed moved to tears. I have no idea how Maury could have walked out on it, unless it was post-Jenufa hangover.