Die agyptische Helena

RFH, SBC, London

Perhaps someone should have asked "The Omniscient Shell" why the opera in which she so heavily features (yes, folks, a soothsaying mollusc, I kid you not) is so rarely performed and almost never staged. Perhaps then, and only then, will the whole truth about Richard Strauss's have been outed before it was too late - namely, that it's an egregious piece of nonsense in which the human voice is systematically (and at length) sacrificed to some of the loudest, crudest, sweatiest, hammiest orchestral hectoring that someone as skilled as Strauss should have had the affrontery to pass off as music. Tell that to the singing clam.

Garsington Opera pipped Royal Opera to the British premiere a year or so back (remember the hoo-ha about noise levels? No wonder), but that's to suggest that this was a race worth winning. If only Menelaus had let bygones be bygones when he and Helen of Troy were reunited after the Trojan war, if only they hadn't gone to Egypt, then everyone would have been spared this whole unhappy farrago. You know you're in trouble when even "The Shell" can't make itself heard above the wind machine, grand organ, and extra brass of the mighty tempest that the sorceress Aithra unleashes upon Menelaus's ship in the opening scene. You know you're in trouble because it's the shell that's describing the action for you. Some action. We have the inevitable magic potions - a memory-suppressing lotus juice and its fearful antidote - we have "green-eyed" elves and desert warriors, we have the second honeymoon, the sexual reawakening - in a palm grove at the foot of the Atlas Mountains (somewhere, we're told, where no one has ever heard of Helen or of Troy) - and we have all manner of subsequent confusion as potions wear off, antidotes are administered, and poor Menelaus doesn't know whether he's coming or going, so to speak. Him and me both.

No, the real shame of is that here was a composer (and librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal) at the height of his powers so spectacularly failing to tap the reservoirs of an imagination that had already yielded a handful of the finest works for the lyric stage this century. This is all-purpose Strauss, all capital and no interest, all bluster and no insight - all gong and no dinner. A vulgar self-parody of his worth. In the final scene, for instance, you hear and do not quite believe that a composer of his stature - the composer of Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier, for heaven's sake - could have resorted to Egyptian pastiche of such unspeakable cheapness that I fancy even Mr De Mille would have sent it back for rewriting.

There are, I'll concede, fleeting gorgeous moments. The G-spot of the opera - its one familiar set-piece - is Helen's "awakening scene", vintage ecstasy up to and including an orgasmic high D-flat. Deborah Voigt tweaked it here with relish. This big, confident, eminently secure voice knows no fear. And yet, the sound (a clarion quality, arresting rather than seductive) and the singing do not convey Helenic beauty to these ears. Great noise, but what's it saying? So, too, John Horton Murray's strenuous Melenaus. Serviceable (he hung in there), but only just. And what to make of Lyuba Kazarnovskaya's Aithra? A pushed lyrical voice with a quavery, even surreal, coloratura facility. Supernatural indeed.

But every one of the singers involved in this concert performance (and for that small mercy, much thanks) deserved danger-money. The much-trumpeted Christian Thielemann conducted the unwieldy score inconsiderately, leaping, crouching to its every whim, but actually exercising little appreciable control over the dynamic range. It wasn't really exciting - just really loud. And relentless. After Cosi fan tutte the night before, it felt like a violation. Pass the aspirin.