Odyssey Opera's "Egyptian Helen": Heroes with Mussels

Katrina Galka, Kirsten Chambers & Clay Hilley, with Conductor Gil Rose
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

True to its six-season history, the adventurous Odyssey Opera recently produced yet another Boston premiere, this time the sublime Die Agyptische Helena, composed by Richard Strauss with a libretto by his frequent partner Hugo von Hofmannsthal. When it comes to operatic works by Strauss, one doesn't expect a brief chamber piece, and this one was no exception, running just shy of three hours, with a chorus of almost thirty singers and an orchestra of nearly a hundred players. Based on Euripides' Helen, performed in a concert version in German, with English supertitles by Christopher Bergen, the opera is, in the words of Odyssey Opera's General and Artistic Director Gil Rose, about “love lost and painstakingly re-won”. A relatively little-known romantic work, it's a tale of desire and jealousy, first seen and heard in Dresden in 1928. Given the extraordinary score and performance this past Friday, this cried out to be heard in what was perhaps the high point in concert productions this season, despite a rather incredible libretto; it was Strauss at his finest, if not best-known, truly a hit, not a myth.

The romantic story takes place right after the end of the Trojan War, in the (mythological) past when Helen (soprano Kirsten Chambers), having first eloped with Paris, is returning to Sparta with her husband Menelas (tenor Clay Hilley), when their ship is blown off course to the magical island belonging to the enchantress Aithra (soprano Katrina Galka), accompanied by her First Servant (Sara Duchovnay) and Second Servant (Erica Brookhyser). Aithra, through her oracle, a mussel known as the Omniscient Sea Shell (contralto Joyce Castle), learned of Menelas' intention to kill Helen for her infidelity and deliberately washed them ashore so that she could convince Menelas that it was a phantom form of Helen who had fled with Paris. The first act of the opera is surprisingly light and humorous for such a dark take on this tale, but the second act is significantly more philosophical and serious. Helen hails their second wedding night as Menelas wonders if she was an illusion, when suddenly the mountain prince Altair (baritone Ryne Cherry) and his son Da-ud (tenor Won Whi Choi) arrive. They bring gifts and urge Menelas to join them on a hunt. In a stupor, Menelas, thinking Da-ud is Paris, kills him. Escorted by Helen's daughter Hermione (soprano Leah Kazuko), Menelas drinks a potion to restore his memory, forgives Helen and thus reunites his fractured family.

Joyce Castle in "Egyptian Helen" with Odyssey Opera Boston
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The role of Menelas is a demanding one, to say the least, and audiences clearly felt Hilley was up to the task with his Wagnerian power; the same could be said for the role of Helen as sung by Chambers (last seen locally as the Infanta in Odyssey Opera's production of Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg) and Galka, not to mention the brief but memorable delight of hearing Castle (in the fiftieth year of her singing career). Add to these artists the conducting skills of Maestro Rose and the expertise of the Odyssey Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and this was a Helen to remember.

The concert was presented on one night only, Friday April 18th at Jordan Hall, to be followed in mid-June by the company's third tribute to Helen, Offenbach's La Belle Helene, fully staged and sung in English, at Huntington Avenue Theatre. That's a heck of a lot of Helen, but well worth a few thousand ships, more or less. As Rose succinctly puts it, omnia vincit amor!

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