A Trojan War setting, scenes of shipwreck and suddenly conjured elves, a sweeping orchestral score, a vocally high-flying lead role — Richard Strauss's Die ‹gyptische Helena would seem to demand the musical and technical mastery of the Met. So it may come as a surprise that David Fielding's new production made its debut on an English country lawn.
"It's a special place with its very own atmosphere," Fielding says of the Garsington Opera, a summer festival held at a manor house in Oxfordshire where he first staged Helena in 1997. But the venue, charming as it is, has limitations. "There's no proscenium arch, no flies, and lighting doesn't really play a part in the production," Fielding says with a laugh. These dramaturgical restrictions, however, rather than acting as an impediment, led the director/designer to focus squarely on the opera's characters. And by spotlighting the real drama and mythic underpinnings behind the somewhat complicated storyline, he has taken Strauss's famously tough-to-stage work and larger-than-life characters and created a moving domestic drama.
"If the production is presented in a manner that's faithful to the stage directions in the original libretto, it becomes cluttered with all sorts of curious details and local color," Fielding explains. "I wanted to strip that away, because I think the piece is really about the conflict between two marriages."
Fielding is referring, of course, to the vexed union of the Spartan king Menelaus (Menelas), played by acclaimed German tenor Torsten Kerl (in his Met debut), and his wife, Helen (Helena), sung by the magnificent Deborah Voigt. Helen's affair with the Trojan prince Paris triggers the war at the heart of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (not to mention Wolfgang Petersen's recent film, Troy) and serves as the springboard for Hugo von Hofmannsthal's fanciful libretto. The secondary pair at the heart of the opera is the sorceress Aithra, sung by the scintillating Diana Damrau, and her husband, Poseidon. The sea god does not appear in the libretto, but Fielding has placed him at the center of a dumb show that opens the production to reinforce the work's themes of doubling and shadows.
"Poseidon's constant philandering and the crisis it brings about for Aithra is what sets the whole piece in motion," says Fielding, a longtime Strauss devotee. "She's almost going through a nervous breakdown. So we're in a domestic, rather than a palatial, setting. But the scale is godlike."
Two marriages with similar problems — sounds like a simple enough conceit. But Hofmannsthal's rendering involves a trick, whereby Menelas is persuaded that his wife's abduction was in fact a kind of dream. The real Helena, this plot point suggests, has been hidden away, sleeping, under Aithra's guardianship, while a spirit-like substitute Helena had the affair with Paris. Menelas doesn't know what to think, so Aithra administers a lotus potion to keep his mind at ease. From there it gets even more bizarre. Only the Omniscient Mussel, a sort of anthropomorphic oracle (which Fielding calls "the only role for a singing bivalve in the entire operatic canon"), knows for sure what's going on.
In fairness to the opera's creators, the dramatic structure faced a sudden change in direction at the outset. When Strauss and Hofmannsthal began discussing their plans for a piece based on the story of Helen of Troy, the composer immediately imagined the famed soprano Maria Jeritza as the leading lady and thought to write a lighter piece, which he referred to as a "mythological operetta." The concept, however, was quickly abandoned in favor of a more lush and operatic musical and dramatic framework. What made it to the stage in the end, though, retains many of Hofmannsthal's weighty yet whimsical touches, adding to the stylistic uniqueness of the work.
Strauss's sumptuous orchestral writing — to be conducted at the Met by Fabio Luisi — pulls it all together. And the title role is a rare opportunity for a full-voiced singer capable of doing justice to the moments of calm and lyrical expression in the score. In Voigt, the opera has a leading Strauss diva who can meet the musical and dramatic demands of the part. "You have a big orchestra, and it's a big sing!" she says. "And who wouldn't want to play the world's most beautiful woman? Much better than having a sack thrown over you!"
For Fielding, Helena's copious symbols make for a strong starting point from which to build his staging, particularly the opera's notion of shadows, of characters reflecting and shedding light on one another. "It's very interesting that, in many operas Strauss and Hofmannsthal collaborated on, there are two sets of relationships involved," Fielding notes. "Here, of course, we have Helena and Menelas, opposite Aithra and Poseidon. And I think in Helena there is a shadow: it's the mussel. In a certain sense, it is Aithra's shadow. It's omnipresent — as well as omniscient — it's there all the way through the whole evening, making it appear almost as if Aithra were on the psychoanalyst's couch."
One could even suggest that there's a third "marriage" under scrutiny in the piece: that of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Are there parallels to be drawn from the couples they brought to life in their stage works to their own creative partnership? "As far as Die ‹gyptische Helena is concerned, I think that Hofmannsthal realized Strauss was developing his style," Fielding says. "Since Die Frau ohne Schatten, he had written Intermezzo and created a lighter orchestral texture for the kind of dialogue he wanted the characters to have. When Hofmannsthal was writing Helena, he was obviously trying to give him that sort of material again, but at the same time he couldn't resist being heavy-handedly symbolic. Strauss was the one who seemed to know what he wanted, yet at the same time he would give Hofmannsthal enough space to feel that he, creatively, was an equal part of the duo. I think Hofmannsthal was always worried about being pushed out, sidelined, by what he conceived of as Strauss's great genius and his intuitive ability to know, more so than Hofmannsthal himself, what was right on the operatic stage."
Fielding isn't giving Hofmannsthal short shrift, though. On the contrary, the librettist's recurring interest in myth for inspiration is in line with Fielding's own creative process. "I can imagine why he would be attracted to writing libretti with mythological subjects. As a symbolist writer, it means you can write about other, more domestic subjects using mythology as the framework," he says. "The story is about who these characters are and what they represent in this particular crisis. If you keep that as the central driving force of the action, you can make the whole piece really come alive."
On that Strauss and Hofmannsthal would no doubt agree. The librettist himself hinted at why opera and myth made such a strong union in a letter to his composer collaborator. Explaining why he found the story of Helen and Menelaus worth exploring, he said, "How modern this is! How close to the storytelling of our own time!"