Voyage of Rediscovery: Die ägyptische Helena at the Teatro alla Scala

Strauss – Die ägyptische Helena

Helena – Ricarda Merbeth
Menelas – Andreas Schager
Aithra – Eva Mei
Altair – Thomas Hampson
Da-Ud – Attilio Glaser
Hermione – Caterina Maria Sala
1. Dienerin der Aithra – Tajda Jovanovič
2. Dienerin der Aithra – Valeria Girardello
1. Elfe – Noemi Muschetti
2. Elfe – Arianna Giuffrida
3. Elfe – Alessandra Visentin
4. Elfe – Valeria Girardello
Die alles-wissende Muschel – Claudia Huckle

Coro del Teatro all Scala, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Franz Welser-Möst.
Stage director – Sven-Eric Bechtolf.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Friday, November 15th, 2019.

For its new staging of this magnificent rarity, Die ägyptische Helena, the Teatro alla Scala confided the stage direction to Sven-Eric Bechtolf and the musical direction to Franz Welser-Möst.  Helena of course contains much glorious music, but also requires three leads who can handle the extreme demands of Strauss’s writing – a soprano with amplitude and ease on top, a tenor who can cope with cruelly high sustained writing over a super-sized band, and a kind of turbo-charged Zerbinetta with agility on top and a middle that carries through the house.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

Bechtolf’s staging undoubtedly looks impressive.  He sets the action in the 1920s, with a set that looks like giant radio set.  In turn, this opens to reveal the Alles-wissende Muschel singing into a microphone.  The visuals are undeniably beautiful to look at, in particular how the set (Julian Crouch) opens up to reveal multiple art deco layers.  Later, as the action moves to the Atlas Mountains, Altair and his entourage are costumed (Mark Bouman) to look like both Klingons and the regulars of a gentlemen’s leather establishment.  There is also an impressively bejewelled dress for Helena.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

By setting the action in the 1920s, this allows Bechtolf to introduce another layer.  Video (Josh Higgason) shows soldiers on the battlefields and trenches of World War 1 and this leads to an intriguing premise.  It allows us to see reasons for Menelas as being damaged by war.  After all, given everything he had gone through, it’s inevitable that the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would be apparent.  Of course, Dmitri Tcherniakov took a similar approach in his Paris Troyens.  This approach also allows us to see why the sorceress Aithra uses potions to help medicate Helena and Menelas, thereby setting up this idea of the use of medication to help war victims, as well as the effects of PTSD.  And yet, despite this intelligent premise, one that clearly has its roots in the text, I’m not completely convinced by Bechtolf’s execution.  Far too often, personenregie consisted of standing at the front with arms aloft, staring into the middle distance.  Ricarda Merbeth’s Helena, in particular, was lumbered with direction that, in her big Act 2 opener ‘Zweite Brautnacht’, had her waving her arms around and gave her Helena a lack of emotional depth.  Indeed, the treatment of the female characters seemed to be much less developed than the emotional journey Bechtolf accorded to Menelas.  Of course, he was working with a libretto that is patently heteronormative, with such gems of insight as Helena declaring that women have only one man.  Still, I longed for a Bieito or a Michieletto to genuinely bring out, not only the depth of these women’s stories, but to combine it as being intimately connected to Menelas’s predicament.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

Musically, though, there were multiple rewards.  In Merbeth and Andreas Schager’s Menelas, the Scala has found two interpreters more than able to do justice to the extreme demands placed on them.  Merbeth gave us a fabulous Helena.  It’s a role that sits ideally for her soprano and exploited her remarkable ease on top.  It must be admitted that it took her a little while to find the core of the tone – the voice initially sounding slightly grainy.  As the evening developed, she opened up on high, in her ‘Zweite Brautnacht’ pouring out ecstatic tones, the voice taking wing and soaring ever higher.  Despite the limitations of Bechtolf’s staging, she found beauty and longing in the text, using the words to draw out both the sorrow and the regret – as well as the joy of the rediscovery of love and family.  The final scene, with her and Schager soaring and riding the magnificent surging sound from the pit, was absolutely glorious.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

Menelas is a near inhuman assignment but Schager made it sound easy.  What a pleasure it was to hear a Menelas sing in tune, be able to give all the notes their required value, and sing with sensitivity.  Thanks to the concept, he was able to make Menelas very much a rounded, flesh and blood individual, one haunted by visions of the battlefield and desperate to love again.  He shaded the tone with delicacy, bringing out a loving compassion.  He also gave us some thrilling, theatre-filling high notes, riding the thick, massive orchestration like it was the easiest thing in the world.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

Eva Mei gave us a vivacious Aithra. The voice didn’t always carry in the middle, and the text wasn’t always clear, but she displayed an impressive agility on high – as well as a genuine trill.  She was also an absolutely tireless stage presence.  Thomas Hampson brought a lieder singer’s attention to text as Altair.  The voice has dried out compared to his younger self, but there’s still an impressive ease on high.  Attilio Glaser made much of his role as Da-Ud, his tenor with a masculine edge, although slightly tremulous in the middle.  Claudia Huckle sang an eloquent Muschel.  She made some tasteful descents into the depths, if perhaps without the organ pedal low notes the role ideally needs.  Unfortunately, she was often inaudible from my seat in the middle of the Platea.  There was a mellifluous ensemble of Elves.  Bruno Casoni’s chorus was nothing if not enthusiastic, singing from the stage-side boxes, even if the ladies were rather cavalier in pitching.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

I found Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting curious.  He obtained some wonderful playing from the Scala orchestra, with a full and soupy string sound, generous portamenti, the solo horn finding poetry under the strings’ midnight glow.  The all-important winds were nicely forward in the texture, with a particularly eloquent solo clarinet.  That said, his tempi far too often felt pedestrian, with little give and take, seemingly engaging more in traffic management that a deeper penetration below the surface.  There were also balance issues, as mentioned above, between stage and pit that should ideally have been resolved by this point in the run.  The quality of the playing he obtained was superb, but I missed a firmer hand guiding this glorious score forward.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

Ultimately, however, this was another of these evenings where I left the theatre elated.  After all, there’s nothing quite like basking in the sound of two massive voices riding a Straussian orchestra.  Bechtolf introduced an intriguing concept, one that I ultimately felt was only partly successfully executed.  The cast was strong, on the whole, and the playing of the house orchestra absolutely glorious.  The trill of getting to experience Schager and Merbeth in full flight is undeniable.  If you can get to Milan, go.

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