The Egyptian Helen
By Bryan Gilliam, Duke University
“What could be more serious than married life?” Richard Strauss once remarked about his Sinfonia domestica (1904), “marriage is the most profound event in life and the spiritual joy of such a union is heightened by the arrival of a child.” On the surface the remark appears to be a defense of his domestic symphony, maligned by a press who saw the sacred art of music desecrated in a celebration of everyday family life. But Strauss was, in fact, quite serious. His preoccupation with marriage and fidelity, with domestic relationships formed a continuous theme throughout his life’s work, and it established a significant bond between himself and his librettist of nearly three decades, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
Hofmannsthal was quick to remind Strauss of this motif in Ariadne auf Naxos, when the composer began to lose interest in a project he saw as too stylized. “What Ariadne is about,” he wrote to Strauss, “is one of the straightforward and stupendous problems of life: fidelity; whether to hold fast to that which is lost, to cling to it even in death–or to live, to live on, to get over with it, to transform oneself.” This vital theme would again be explored in greater depth in his next mythological opera, Die ägyptische Helena (1928), a work that, in fact, completes a trilogy of operas on the subject of marriage, begun first with Die Frau ohne Schatten, which explores domestic relationships on metaphysical and human levels, followed by the autobiographical Intermezzo (text by Strauss), which uses the topic of fidelity as material for a light-hearted bourgeois comedy.
Poet and composer were in full agreement that after the weighty Die Frau ohne Schatten they needed to collaborate on something lighter, something–as Strauss explained–devoid of “Wagnerian musical armor.” The composer, encouraged by his comic Intermezzo, declared (somewhat facetiously) his desire to become the “Offenbach of the twentieth century,” and Hofmannsthal, eager to lure him away from Wagnerian “erotic screaming,” suggested a mythological operetta based on the story of Helen of Troy. The poet envisioned a lighter orchestra, one without the dense leitmotiv treatment so apparent in Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Strauss was largely successful in shifting more focus on the voices. Die ägyptische Helena was their first and only bel canto work (Helen being one of Strauss’s greatest soprano roles), and from the very outset, even as Hofmannsthal began devising scenarios, the poet had particular singers in mind: Maria Jeritza, Richard Tauber, and Alfred Jerger.
But Die ägyptische Helena–especially in its more complex, symbolic second act–would prove to be a work somewhat removed from the delicate, lighter world of belle Helène. There are, to be sure, marvelous satirical touches in Act I: a singing omniscient shell, mischievous elves, and the like. But things take a more profound turn by the second curtain, when Hofmannsthal brings into focus themes so central to his other libretti: memory, marital fidelity, and the restoration of trust. Like Ariadne, Helen gives herself to death (risking her life by offering her husband, Menelaus, the potion of remembrance), and in doing so she is transformed and transforms her husband, for the jealous Menelaus is finally able to resolve the good and bad in Helen (and himself) and–reborn–he accepts her: “Ever same, ever new.”
What links such great Hofmannsthal libretti such as Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Die ägyptische Helena, is that critical moment when the title role takes a potential fatal risk and is thereby forever changed. “Transformation is the life of life itself,” Hofmannsthal declared, “the real mystery of nature as creative force. Permanence is numbness and death. Whoever wants to live must surpass himself, must transform himself: he has to forget. And yet all human merit is linked with permanence, unforgetfulness, constancy.” This is life’s great enigma, a paradox explored with great poignancy in what Hofmannsthal declared to be his finest libretto, his last completed opera text for Strauss.