I have the pleasure of presenting The Straussmonster. I mean, who better to blog Helena? She knows more about Strauss than you or I do, but she'd never point that out. And here's what she has to say:
So, let me start this with a disclaimer. As one can probably tell from my nom de guerre, I'm not an impartial observer when it comes to Strauss operas. I remember the announcement a few years ago that the Met would be doing Helena, and how excited I was to finally get to see this rare, peculiar, and undeniably problematic beast.
Also, unlike many readers out there in the opera blogosphere, I don't get to go to the opera nearly so often (I envy those of you with four Helenas, you bastards), since it's a long commute and a late, late night, but this has its advantages. The most important of these is that I'm not jaded, probably even naive, and I set out to enjoy anything and everything. I'm an ecumenical opera lover--I'll go see anything at least once.
Up in the upper deck, one row from the top, last night. It does have its advantages--there's a seekrit ladies' room at the very top of the Met. And the regulars up at the top have long memories; they were chuckling over the Zambello Lucia last night. (Make a failure like that and *everyone* will remember it, and poor June Anderson refusing to climb down the stairs in rehearsal.) This Helena is hardly a failure, but hardly a top-shelf production either.
It does have its good points. Some aspects of the bright color scheme were very appealing, especially the slinky bright blue dress for Helena. And I have no major problems with stripping down the excesses of the libretto (it's the Met, kids: we only get horses for Aida) and going with something more spare. But so much of it didn't work because it just made no sense. I suppose the black of the first act and white of the second are meant to evoke the retread of the issues (Menelas is still crazy), but it just...ugh. The red arrows for the battle scene were ridiculous. All scenes handling the chorus were done badly. [ed.: oh, my god, the arrows.]
The elves reminded me of Jem. That is not a good thing.
Voigt looked good in that dress. This was the first time I'd seen her post-operation, and she does look great. Even more than that, she obviously loves this role and throws herself into it. I'd seen her a few times before (Sieglinde in Chicago, long ago; Met Ariadne, Met Kaiserin, which I remember being somewhat disappointed in), and memory is a fickle beast but I do think her voice has changed. Less creamy and smooth, a certain sharp edge to it in places, but something about those high notes...mmm.
Menelas. Oh, Menelas. As Maury said, it's unsingable, and as such I'm willing to give a lot of leeway in this role. It doesn't need the sheer beauty of voice that der Kaiser suffers without, although it would be nice. Where Kerl was lacking most to my ears, besides sheer audibility in places, was in those places where the role snaps a hard right over into the full-blown lyric and the lines become long and elegant. Those are, I might add, some of the most musically amazing patches in the score--check out near the end of Act II, such as that cruel high entrance on "Helena!" (A side musical note: the ending trio is the musical culmination of the opera, the rest is just epilogue; it weaves together music from all other places and finally expands and completes earlier musical ideas. It's also in the Straussian key of the sublime, D-flat major.)
Diana Damrau, who was an entertaining Zerbinetta last year but there subscribed to a 'more is more' philosophy about the role, toned it down a bit and brought the comedy to the forefront. Comedy? Helena is a generic mess, which is one of the major problems with staging the work. You have an Omniscient Seashell, elves, murder, shell shock, tragedy, bickering, all thrown together. Many times last night I sincerely felt for the audience who may have read the synopsis, but hadn't sat down with the libretto beforehand. To be kind, it's dense. But it's also marvelous German and incredibly literary--all you have to do is read the libretto of one of the later Strauss/Gregor operas to weep for what could have been.
Most opera fans have a list of things that they never want to see done again, conceptually. Among mine are: anything involving Nazis, insane asylums, or operas being staged as if a dream of one of the characters. But that last might actually work here, since despite the title, the opera is really about Menelas, not Helen. She gets the bulk of the musical glamor, but it's all about his psyche. I can imagine a production which plays up that interpretation of the work and then uses aspects like lighting to mirror his states of mind and how he perceives the world around him. Any further ideas on that?
Fielding's decision that the opera was really about Aithra just...doesn't work. Damrau is a sport for sleeping through the first half of Act II, but it makes her entrance a little more huh-inducing than usual. Likewise with the decision to bring Poseidon on stage at the end, looking, as one person I talked to said, "like a teenager in a zoot suit". Aithra is the agent of the Baroque deus ex machina at the end of the opera, but the essence of the internal drama is when Helen sucks it up and tells her "No more forgetting, no more fake attempts at bliss--I'll make him remember." Come to think of it, that's really the most proactive thing that Helen does in the entire opera, and isn't it very like Hofmannsthal to load so much onto one little action?
The directorial dumbshow/stage drama/whatever did remarkably little to illuminate any of that, despite his best heavy-handed efforts. The bald and red-painted Ghost of Paris reminded me of nothing so much as Steve, the bouncer from the Jerry Springer Show. Ooh, look! It's a big sword on stage! But why are people carrying it around?
Although it's a concept that has come in for its fair share of scorn (one that comes to mind is Pierre Boulez talking about the Chereau production of Lulu), fundamental to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's operatic aesthetic is the unity of music, text, and stage action. Boulez was scornful of the idea that music and stage action match together, referring to it as redundant. Hofmannsthal and Strauss, much wiser (I think), realizes that although they might be 'saying the same thing', action and music work in different ways and form a whole greater than the part. This is what the pantomimes failed to achieve. They just didn't mean anything in and of themselves, and they didn't help illuminate the musical structure.
And while I 'get' the idea of the man with the briefcase and the sword (ancient and modern archetypes mixed together, which was Hofmannsthal's idea with the libretto), it didn't work. I didn't know what the hell was going on with the Seashell and her male partner at almost any time, but especially in the whiteface of Act II. I feel for the singers/actors who had to have that much makeup put on. Would totally wear the black tux for a Halloween outfit, unless someone can get me a good Valkyrie costume.
I loved Fabio Luisi's conducting of Boccanegra and he did a steady job with this deceptively thick score. If you go and look at it, it's massive--but it's in many ways closer to a chamber opera in actual texture. There were a few places (I'd have to go back and pick them up on a broadcast, but I could) where tempi seemed a little fast, to the point that the line and cohesion with the singers suffered, but I'm nitpicking against my mental image of this score. I'd also have to check, but I think Voigt fell into the trap almost everyone else does, and screwed up the phrasing for that crazy last phrase of Zweite Brautnacht. It's marked in the score, people--but it's also written so as to encourage trainwrecks. The C# was there, I'm not complaining.
So despite all the nitpicking here, go and see the opera. I found it very moving, especially near the end, where the direction recedes for a moment (before the ridiculous ending) and the performances and music and emotions manage to conquer. I've been singing Menelas' music all day.
...and the less said about the cruise ship ending or the TEMPLE IN SPAAAAACE! drop curtains, the better.
What could I possibly add?
Next up on my agenda: Traviata Bulgariana, unless I decide instead to opt for the novelty of a full night's sleep.