Teatro alla Scala 2018-19 Review: Die ägyptische Helena
A Tour De Force Performance Led By Ricarda Merbeth & Andreas SchagerBy Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano)
To close out the 2018-19 season, the Teatro alla Scala decided to present its first-ever production of R. Strauss’ “Die ägyptische Helena,” which was created between “Intermezzo” and “Arabella.” It was a work in which Strauss turned his focus back toward Greek myths, with the huge orchestrations that he had employed in “Elektra” and “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.”
For this momentous occasion, La Scala put together an incredible cast with a lavish production and exciting conducting.
An Accomplished Conductor
In the pit, Franz Welser-Möst led an accomplished performance of Strauss’ exciting and massive score. In this opera, the orchestra is a like wave constantly crescendoing to a climax. But it is a crescendo that has many ebbs and flows and under Welser-Möst the music built swiftly bringing each climatic moment to gorgeous and passionate fortes. One could hear the violins ascend to the higher registers with great clarity and the brass entering at different moments of the score with clarion force that was never intrusive to the rest of the ensemble.
One of the most gorgeous moments of the evening came at the end of the first act. The orchestra took on a dream-like color with the strings’ delicate tremolo slowly and sublimely fading beautifully into nothingness.
In Act two the first violinist also indulged in a the gorgeous and mythical solo as he employed some exquisite portamento into the upper register, almost as if he was part of the vocal ensemble. This violin soloist blended immediately into the massive finale which was played with triumphant power.
One also has to credit Welser-Möst for his imaginative and painterly interpretation of certain parts of the music, including the storm at the beginning where the winds and the strings’ precise playing gave the sense of ocean waves. In Act two, one could feel the galloping of horses through with the woodwinds. This was truly masterful storytelling that you rarely see from most conductors.
Tour de Force Lovers
In many ways “Die ägyptische Helena” is Strauss’ “Tristan und Isolde” as the opera is an extended love duet. Once both Helena and Menelas enter the stage, they never stop singing and are forced to sing over a large ensemble in the highest reaches of their tessituras.
On this evening Ricarda Merbeth and Andreas Schager matched each other with strength and vivid high notes during their duets, trios and ensembles. Their voices blended gorgeously into one, continuously crescendoing through the orchestra. In their more intimate moments in Act two, their two voices, which sang mainly in the middle registers, blended beautiful, melting into the succeeding phrases of Strauss’ lush music. It was great to see these two artists so engaged with each other that even though they stood in one place most of the time, you could sense their love and torment for each other’s pain.
In the role of Menelaus, Andreas Schager gave a heroic performance. The tenor never seemed to run out of energy, this timbre potent and valiant throughout. In the first act he brought torment to the first half, singing with incredible accents and ardent high notes. The tone brought an urgency that showed a man struck by anger and grief for his wife’s betrayal with Paris.
But as he was put under Aithra’s spell and fell asleep, Schager’s tone brightened and gained even greater strength, his singing riding over Strauss’ dense orchestra with greater presence. At one point, he continually crescendoed throughout the first act trio arriving at a heroic high note.
In the first half of Act two, Schager’s agitated tone imbued his interpretation with a return to the torment and desperation seen earlier. His high notes were more jagged and pointed with the phrases growing shorter, expressing his anger. After taking the potion, his singing regained smoothness and rounder qualities, his final solo moment building back up to a climactic forte.
In the title role, Ricardo Merbeth sang with glimmering high notes and a seductive middle voice throughout the first act. As she told Schager’s Menalas to kill her, there was allure in her sound. Clearly she was a confident woman who knew exactly how to get what she wanted and knew that Schager’s desperation would never lead him to kill her. Merbeth sang with confidence throughout this first duet, eventually unleashing the full resonance of her sound.
In her duet with Eva Mei’s Aithra, Merbeth scaled back her spinto voice to a lighter and more playful quality, the timbre matching Mei’s elegant and flirtatious sound. In the final trio from Act one, Merbeth showcased bright high notes that emphasized the dream-like state of being under Aithra’s potion.
In the second act, Helena never leaves the stage, tasking Merbeth with a marathon of singing. She was more than up to the task.
In her opening act aria “Zweite Brautnacht!,” Merbeth sang with ecstasy as the voice continually ascended into the higher tessitura. Her dynamics crescendoed the higher she went until she reached a High C with great facility.
And as she sang her aria, Merbeth’s facial expression only emphasized the joy in Helena and she twirled twice around the stage to further this sense of celebration. That delight soon changed as Altair and his son started to court her. Upon seeing Menelaus’ jealousy, Merbeth’s timbre darkened and she started to fear her husband’s torment, singing with a cautious and huskier middle register.
However, confidence that was so representative of her interpretation never left, particularly in her interactions with Attilio Glaser’s Da-ud, as she laughed off his attempts at luring her. It only strengthen her confidence and when she finally made up her mind to give Menelaus’ a new potion to remember her, she sang with defiance and vigor, the tone regaining in brightness. The steely high notes resonated with authority through the auditorium and her final exchange with Schager’s Menelaus was one filled with sensual ecstasy.
Vocal Character Arcs
As Aithra, Eva Mei brought a clarion lyric soprano that also had elegance and flexibility. The role demands a soprano who can move easily through the highs and lows of the register throughout the dialogues with some coloratura runs and some extended long phrases as well. Strauss wrote quite a lot of stacatto phrases for the character and many of her exchanges are in recitative format where her melodies are short but virtuosic.
Mei brought charm throughout the evening, especially in her Act one duet with Merbeth’s Helena and in her Act three trio. In the Act two ensemble she rode over the orchestra with her gleaming lyric soprano. As she tried to convince Helena not drink the new potion, Mei brought a stronger middle voice that gave her playful character a moodier tone. There was that sense of fear for Helen’s life in her singing that would soon return to brightness in the final ensemble when Menelaus reconciles with his wife.
Thomas Hampson sang the role of Altair with with an imposing baritone that had a burnished timbre, but as he was caught up in his infatuation for Helena, his singing developed a sense of desperation with forceful accents of the text and more perceptible rises and falls in his phrasing. The development from refined elegance to a more rugged vocalism perfectly embodied the arc of his character’s descent.
Attilio Glaser interpreted the role of Da-ud, Altair’s son with a shimmering tenor in his brief scene. Tajda Jovanovič and Valeria Girardello brought strength and vocal fireworks as Aithra’s slaves.
An Effective Production
Before closing out the review it is important to note that part of the success of La Scala’s first “Helena” is in part due to Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s magnificent production.
For his conception Bechtolf decided to mount the action as a fable told through a radio station. At the beginning of the opera, Aithra is an aristocrat listening to a huge radio in the center of the stage. When the storm hits and Helena and Menelaus arrive, the radio opens up to reveal what one can interpret as Aithra’s imagination; she is ultimately the driving force of the story and in this version, this not only extends to how she affects the lovers, but also how the audience imagines and perceives the story. When the radio closes at the end, Aithra is back in the middle with her little radio finishing the story. It becomes theater within theater.
All in all, this was an enthralling experience that lived up to La Scala’s reputation as one of the greatest theaters in the world.