Die ägyptische Helena, the fifth Strauss opera for which Hugo von Hofmannsthal provided the libretto, takes its basic plot from ancient attempts to explain how it was that Menelaus apparently forgave his errant wife, Helen, despite all the blood that was shed as a result of her elopement with Paris, one of the sons of King Priam of Troy. This required the invention of a fake Helen who eloped with Paris while the real one was spirited off to languish in Egypt and finally reunited with her husband on his way home to Sparta from the Trojan War. Hofmannsthal conceived the opera as "a late Antique, somewhat irreverent comedy with much parlando and light, attractive ceremonial...operetta-like." Strauss envisioned something in the spirit of Offenbach with dances incorporated into it. What actually resulted is a large-scale opera with a puzzling, uneventful plot supported by what one writer called "a flood of beautiful sound of a cosmopolitan, hymnic nature."
The biggest problem with Hofmannsthal's libretto is not merely that there is minimal action; the characters "speak" at great length, often to themselves, occasionally philosophizing about the meaning of what they're saying. This tends to inhibit the composer's imagination, reducing him to note-spinning, a charge often leveled against his later operas, but Hofmannsthal's talky libretto gives him little choice. To complicate matters, Hofmannsthal decided to combine the spirit Helena with the real one, so Menelas must be brought around to forgiveness by a combination of magic, his wife's seductive beauty, and a symbolic execution of Paris. Nevertheless, Hofmannsthal considered it the best libretto he had done and it should be pointed out that Strauss expressed his satisfaction with Hofmannsthal's work.
Given Strauss's standing in the musical world, the June 1928 premiere in Dresden, conducted by Fritz Busch, could not help but be a success, as was the first Vienna presentation five days later, led by Strauss himself, but after the first run of performances around the world's leading houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, the reception accorded Die ägyptische Helena suggested that its days in the repertory were numbered. In 1933 the Director Lothar Wallerstein and the conductor Clemens Krauss persuaded Strauss to revise the second act by composing an extended duet for Menelas and Helena and cutting and shuffling some other music. In 1940 Director Rudolf Hartmann divided the first act into two scenes, with the arrival of Menelas and Helen taking place outdoors as they seek shelter from a violent storm. Somehow none of these revisions has resulted in resuscitating the opera, which is seldom performed despite the fact that the mature Strauss lavished his most sophisticated techniques on it. The version performed this afternoon is the original 1928 edition. There is general agreement that, whatever its faults may be, it is superior to the 1933 revision.
Helena offers a great opportunity for a dramatic soprano whose voice can soar over Strauss's lavish orchestral textures and a good technician with enough vocal power can do a lot with Aithra, but Strauss was not known for writing sympathetic tenor roles and the part of Menelas is a long, difficult, and relatively thankless one. He spends much of the opera whining about how badly he's been treated and the meaning of it all. Some of the other characters–Altair, Da-ud, the Elves, and the Omniscient Seashell–are inventions of Hofmannsthal. One advantage of the opera's relative lack of action is that it lends itself better than most to concert performance, and with the orchestra on stage, one gets a clearer aural vision of Strauss's masterly manipulation of its colors. The score calls for 101 players, including a stage band, an organ, and a wind-machine.
There was a time when virtually everything Strauss had written after World War I was dismissed as empty pyrotechnics. After his death in 1949 respect began to be accorded to some of the music from what he called his "Indian Summer": pieces written during and after World War II, including Capriccio. Of the inter-war pieces, Strauss's final collaboration with Hofmannsthal, Arabella, seems to have found its way into the fringes of the repertory; perhaps Die ägyptische Helena and his later operas, Die schweigsame Frau, Friedenstag, and Daphne will eventually manage to do so as well.