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Die Agyptische Helena | Odyssey Opera

by Ed Tapper
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 22, 2019
Kirsten Chambers in Odyssey Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Die Agyptische Helena," Friday, April 19, 2019.
Kirsten Chambers in Odyssey Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Die Agyptische Helena," Friday, April 19, 2019.  (Source:Kathy Wittman)

With a performance of Richard Strauss' "Die Agyptische Helena," Odyssey Opera added another success to its already impressive record. The opera was performed in a concert version at Jordan Hall on Friday evening. Odyssey's solid production made a strong case for this sprawling, but uneven, rarity.

"Die Agyptische Helena" was composed in 1928 on a libretto by Strauss' favorite collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is difficult to fathom what the duo was thinking, conceiving such a highly convoluted and inane storyline. There is even a singing role written for a character titled "The Omniscient Sea-Shell!" The music is often bombastic, and meanders in that particular, post-Wagnerian style of Strauss during this period. There are some brief, melodic gestures, but they seldom develop, and, in stretches, the work is dull and heavy-handed. Yet Strauss' high level of musical craftsmanship and genius in orchestration are evident throughout. One can hear remnants of "Salome," "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "Die Frau ohne Schatten." There are also some wonderful moments, such as the elaborate ensemble finale to Act I, Da-ud's Act II monologue, and of course, Helen's major aria, "Zweite Brautnacht," the most frequently excerpted piece from the opera.

The impossible plot concerns Helen of Troy, and her complex relationship with her homicidal husband, Menelas. It qualifies the opera as an ideal entry in Odyssey's 2019 season devoted to a variety of works concerning the mythological heroine. With her statuesque figure, blonde beauty and natural grace. Kirsten Chambers made an ideal Helen, from a physical standpoint. And she sang quite well, with a lovely soprano instrument, and total commitment to the role. As the huge orchestral forces were on stage behind her, rather than submerged in the pit of an opera stage, she was occasionally inaudible, especially in her lower register, with the orchestra playing at full volume. The part requires a true dramatic soprano, with a bigger, denser sound.

The role of Menelas is a taxing one as the tessitura is high, and there is much loud, dramatic declamation. Heldentenor Clay was undaunted, and poured forth billows of glorious sound that truly impressed the audience. He has already sung at the Met, and the young artist promises to be a major force in the Wagnerian realm. In the role of Aithra, the sorceress who befriends Helen, Katrina Galka exhibited a gleaming, lyric soprano that soared over the orchestra. Of the smaller roles, Won Whi Choi made an outstanding Da-ud. His elegant phrasing, and warm, rich tenor were a delight to hear. Conductor Gil Rose appeared in total control of his sizeable performing forces and provided some thrilling orchestral climaxes.

In June, Odyssey Opera will conclude its tribute to the devastating Trojan beauty with a delightful spoof of the legend. Offenbach's "La Belle Helene" will be sung in English and directed by Frank Kelley in a fully staged production at the Huntington Theatre.

Odyssey Opera performed Richard Strauss' "Die Agyptische Helena" on Friday, April 19, 2019. For more information about Odyssey Opera's productions, including their upcoming performance of Offenbach's "La Belle Helene," visit the Odyssey Opera website.

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