“Die ägyptische Helena,” premiered at the Dresden Semperoper on June 6, 1928. In English, “The Egyptian Helen” was adapted by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal based on the works of Euripides concerning the Trojan War. A less successful work of Strauss, the opera was revised in 1933.
The dynamic role of Helena was written for Maria Jeritza, a larger-than-life soprano in the 1920s who originated the title role of Turandot at its American premiere in New York. She worked closely with Strauss and created the roles of Ariadne in “Ariadne auf Naxos” and the Empress in “Die Frau ohne Schatten.” In Dresden, however, management refused to spend the enormous amount of money required to hire Jeritza. As a result, Elisabeth Rethberg created the role of Helen of Troy.
Short Plot Summary
Like Strauss’ earlier opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” “Die ägyptische Helena” is set in the world of Greek mythology. The Greek king Menelaus grapples with marital problems. Previously, his wife Helena ran away with Paris to cause the events of the Trojan War. As a result, Menelaus considers murdering Helena for her disloyalty. The sorceress Aithra uses her magic to protect Helena, by convincing Menelaus the “true” Helena (from the time before her betrayal) will return to him and that the current Helena is a false wraith.
Menelaus, unable to trust his wife, descends into confusion over reality and illusion. Helena rejects the advice of Aithra and believes that she and her husband must accept their checkered past to save their marriage. Menelaus, still believing the Helena with him is a wraith, hopes to join his wife in death. Ultimately, he realizes his wife of before and after the Trojan War are the same and accepts her as she is.
Famous Musical Numbers
The most significant aria from “Die ägyptische Helena—“Zweite Brautnacht!”—is sung by Helen in Act II. Otherwise, the opera is defined by its duets—both between Menelaus and Helen and Helen and Aithra.
Leontyne Price sings Helen’s aria.