Chapter Review of Die Ägyptische Helena (1928-29)

From the review of Richard L. Stokes in The Evening World

The embittered controversy between Mmes. Rethberg and Jeritza as to which was the composer's choice for the role of Helen - he is said to have assured both of his preference - ended so far as America is concerned with the latter at the head of last night's cast. Those who hoped for a repetition of the prima donna's fiasco of last season in "Carmen" were not a little disappointed.

Both in her acting and singing, Mme. Jeritza observed for the most part a commendable restraint and serenity. There were no "stunts" in this portrait, no pursuit of headlines and sensation. Such screaming as occurred was the fault of the composer. Mostly the role was sung quietly, if not beautifully, with something of the repose and control of Mme. Jeritza's Elizabeth.

But the Helen of legend and of this book possessed two principal qualities which were quite beyond the reach of the Bohemian cantatrice - majesty and seductiveness. For all her stature, Mme. Jeritza scarcely approached a regal, to say nothing of a classic, dignity. The Queen of Sparta, for instance, would not have crept into Althra's palace like a burglar and examined its furnishings with the curiosity of a street arab. And the singer's notion of allurement, with her husband as well as with Altair and Da-Ud appeared to consist in ponderous coquetries and writhings, in the vein of a Teutonic Zaza. This was not a Helen to launch a thousand ships, or even a tugboat.

Unexpectedly, it was Mr. Laubenthal who captured a mien of royal dignity. His Menelaus, though lacking the wild vehemence of the character, wore an air of black and perilous stateliness which was frequently near that of a maddened King. Neither have I ever heard the tenor sing so ably as throughout the first act. The voice for some reason lost its singular trait of contracting and expanding, and more than once became no less than beautiful. As for acting, he contented himself with two postures, one bloodthirsty and the other beatific.

Mme. Fleischer, as Althra, obtained the opera's best solo - the lament for Poseidon - and made the best of it with that skill which is a peril for any prima donna with whom she is cast. The vocal honors of the performance were easily hers. Mr. Whitehill was a handsome Altair, dangerous and passionate of bearing. The occasion's debutante, Miss Jane Carroll, suffered the misfortune of having her role cut to a few lines. It was explained that Mr. Laubenthal, finding some passages uncongenial, cabled to Strauss for permission to excise them, and that with this wreck of pages the chief part of Miss Carroll's music went down. Her contralto appeared well trained and agreeable, but without distinguishing quality and substance. Mme. Telva, hidden from sight, proclaimed the Voice of the Shell with fervor and energy. The casting of Mme. Eisler as Hermoine was one of the Metropolitan's best strokes of unconscious humor.

Dr. Strauss cannot complain that the Metropolitan failed to supply a representative production. There were, to be true, some flaws of direction. The vision of Troy's combat with which Menelaus was deceived was not only superfluous but dully executed. Mme. Jeritza's blandishments for Altair and Da-Ud had no warrant from the libretto or from Helen's character and situation. The costumes which she was permitted to don were nothing short of outrageous. With the incomparable dress of classic Greece at her hand, she resorted instead to the dinner gowns, spangles, high heels and silk hose of modern Paris.

But in the main the presentation was sumptuous, loyal and comely, without stint of pains or cost. Mr. Bodanzky's conducting was admirably faithful, understanding and adept, although the orchestra has not yet clearly defined all the elaborate contrapuntal strands of the score. If, as seems likely, "The Egyptian Helen" fails to win a secure place in popular esteem, the fault may be ascribed in part to the librettist but most emphatically to Richard Strauss himself.

From the review of W. J. Henderson in the New York Sun:

The Metropolitan Opera has known some sorry opera librettos, but none more puerile, more futile, or less interesting than this. Vain are the sumptuous mountings which have been provided by Mr. Gatti. There are elaborate costumes and the principals are attired in robes of glory. But clothes do not make the man or the play. Not even a masterpiece of composition could have achieved any more than these rustling garments do to lift this libretto to the dignity of drama. And Dr. Strauss has not furnished the masterpiece.

It would be unprofitable to make a detailed examination of this score. The writer began once, but desisted from sheer discouragement. There are prodigiously labored pages in which the vocal parts are pushed into a very fury of song speech, but they are hollow. They invariably impress one as the heroic, almost despairing, effort of a musician to feed some kind of suitable drapery for the text, never as flaming outward from within the poem. And there is always the deadly prolixity of Strauss. The less he has to say the more he says.

The orchestration is extraordinarily good. It has all the opulence and variety which Strauss knows so well how to produce. In this respect, and in this alone, the score is a model for young musicians. In short, the orchestral technic is distinctively Straussian, as the melodic idioms and the harmonic texture are. But there is nothing new. One hears the voice of an elderly man babbling his reminiscences.

Unsigned review from Time Magazine, 11/12/28 Egyptian Helen

A Grecian blonde once made tall trouble and men have never forgotten. Long before Christ they knew her as the fairest of all women, the one the Trojan Paris stole, for whom the Greeks fought ten long years. Brave warriors died for Helen. Brave poets since have spent their dearest words on her. She has been Menelaus' Helen, Paris' Helen; Homer's Helen, too, and the Helen of Herodotus, Euripides, of Kit Marlowe, Alexander Pope, Andrew Lang. Recently John Erskine, perspicacious professor at Columbia University, won fame with his Helen refurbished. Last week and for the first time, still proud, still beautiful, she came to the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan-this time the Helen of Composer Richard Strauss, given new being by Singer Maria Jeritza.

The Story.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal did the text for Strauss' Helen and laid the scene in Egypt. Helen and Menelaus are headed home. Troy has fallen. Hector and Achilles are dead. So is the graceful Paris, and by the same curved sword Helen too must die as an atonement to the Greeks. A sorceress learned all this from Muschel, a psychic shell which reported in a bold contralto a vision of Menelaus stealing hugger-mugger into the ship's hold, knife ready. Aithra, the sorceress, had strange powers. Just then she managed a mighty storm to stay the murderer's hand. She blew their ship to bits, dipped them together deep into the sea and brought them up finally on her own Egyptian shore. Aithra was glad to have a wily hand in Helen's history. And so began as confused a mass of supernatural detail as ever bewildered an operatic audience.

To kill or not to kill-Menelaus was distracted. Out came his knife and Helen smiled as poets have had her smile, until, hypnotized, he dropped it. But smiling might not always save her and Aithra mixed a potion that would bring forgetfulness and safety. Menelaus drank and Helen became for him a phantom he could love, one who had never sinned against him and his countrymen. He was happy for a moment, would start at once for home but Helen had her qualms. She remembered. So did all Greeks and again she appealed to Aithra and again Aithra made magic, spirited them away to a lonely palm grove at the foot of Atlas.

There Menelaus woke, distracted still. Helen was pure, but just a shadow Helen. The real one he had killed, just as he killed Paris, just as he would kill anyone who dared rest his eyes on her. Death, Helen decided, was better than a half-mad Menelaus who thought her just a shadow creature, and perhaps death would not come so long as she could smile. Packed away there was another potion that might restore him. Aithra warned her but she took no notice, clapped for wine and balsam and herself brewed the cup of quietude that proved to be remembrance and pathway to a happy ending.

The Performance.

Laymen seeing it for the first time could make little of the plot and all its sundry subplots. They reduced it to its lowest common denominator: a story of reconciliation wherein the principles begin safe journey to Greece.

They went quite evidently with Strauss' blessing. He had treated them benevolently-with bits of old operas and tone poems, cunningly combined to produce a series of lovely effects. He had brooding bewildered music for Menelaus, who was Tenor Rudolph Laubenthal, strutting heroically in a gilded tunic. He had swift, laughing music for Aithra, who was Soprano Editha Fleischer. But like the first Helen, Jeritza dominated. She was a still white Helen asleep on a golden couch against a Mediterranean sky; a soft-singing Helen beguiling Menelaus; a loud, determined Helen, taking matters into her own hands, mixing the last deciding potion. Metropolitan patrons were enthusiastic, applauded her pictures, her singing. Critics were inclined to be testy. Strauss had disappointed. He had permitted himself to ramble on and repeat. That his substance had beauty, that his pattern was smooth, counted for little. They had expected something more from the composer of Rosenkavalier, of Don Quixote, Till Enlenspiegel. Yet no amount of grumbling could dim the glamor of a Strauss premiere.

The Helen.

Maria Jeritza's story is like an early German fairy tale. It begins in the Moravian town of Brno with a bright-haired child playing games of make-believe-make-believe Indian with die Mütter's jam for makeup; make-believe hospital with der Vater's cognac to dose the five little brothers and sisters who had to be patients; make-believe king and queen with the red tablecloth for royal mantle, a tinsel crown for the golden hair and a serving spoon for sceptre. Right always triumphed over wrong in the youthful Jeritza dramas, just as a spanking was the logical ending to the day the jam was stolen. Such a waste, such a waste, die Mütter said. But HOW could it be a waste when they needed it to be Indians and when it could all be licked off anyway?

In the school, in the choir at the church, no child sang more lustily than Maria Jeritza. Someday she would be a great singer, she felt quite sure, and she confided it to her brother. But he laughed, pulled her pigtail, so she said no more about it. When she was twelve, however, die Mütter decided she should go to the musikschule. Soon after she made her first public appearance, sang the wedding duet from Lohengrin. She was the bride, Elsa, all stiffly starched in white. A neighbor's child was groom, a square-faced boy in velvet breeches.

Her operatic début was at 16, in Olmütz. Again she was Elsa, a very wistful Elsa trying hard to be a great singer. To be a great Elsa was not so difficult. Just so she had swept around at home, the tablecloth for mantle. She served five months' apprenticeship at Olmütz but Olmütz would never do for a great singer. With just enough money to last her three days she started for Vienna, asked for an audition. The director heard her halfway through Micaela's aria and stopped her. "But you should not interrupt," said she, indignant. "You might have let me finish. . . ." "I know, I know. But you're hired."

At the Volksoper Jeritza had her most rigorous training, learned stage technique and many rôles. While there she took a holiday at Ischl where the Imperial family spent its summers. The Emperor Franz Josef liked the opera, liked especially Die Fledermaus of Johann Strauss. He went one night when Jeritza was Rosalinda, sat attentive in his box, tapped his foot to the music, clapped loudly when she sang the Czardas. Three times Jeritza curtsied deep and began again...The performance went on...Right triumphed over wrong...The old Emperor beckoned an attendant: "Why have they always old, fat singers at the Hofoper?" Soon Jeritza went to the Imperial Opera.

There she became the Great Jeritza to a gay, music-loving Vienna. Her fame grew with her repertoire. A beautiful prima donna has always seemed a phenomenon. Here was one magnificently built, with sea-blue eyes and golden hair. The public raved. Composers made their music for her. She created Strauss' Ariadne, later the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She was his Salome, his Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier). He saw her in Max Reinhardt's revival of Offenbach's Belle Hélène and an idea was born. It simmered and swelled until last winter he finished for her his Helen.

As early as 1914 there was talk of Jeritza's coming to the U. S. Otto Kahn had heard her in Europe. So had Mr. Gatti. But then came the War. Vienna stayed German and the Metropolitan Opera went Italian. Jeritza was married-to Baron Leopold Popper de Podraghy, one of the wealthiest industrialists of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, turned soldier for his Emperor. She herself sang at the front, worked in a hospital. Not until the fall of 1921 did she come to the Metropolitan.

The opera was Korngold's Tote Stadt, the first given in German after the War. The curtain was five minutes late and the Metropolitan curtain is never late. Patrons wondered. None knew the fault was the new soprano's, so frightened backstage that no sound would come from her throat. She ate some pineapple. She crossed herself once, ten times. Manager Gatti whispered encouragement. The curtain went up and Jeritza made her debut. With her singing and her acting she was a sensation. Tosca, Lohengrin, Cavelleria, Walkure followed the first season. Rosenkavalier, Thaïs, Tannhaüser, Fedora, Jenufa, Jewels of the Madonna, Turandot, Violanta, Carmen have been added since. Tosca and its like have brought her most fame. All the world knows now that she sings the Vissi d'arte lying flat on the stage, that she rolls down the church steps in Cavalleria, dies in most horrible agony in Carmen and Fedora, has a dozen devices for making opera exciting. Artistically she has done better with Walküre, Rosenkavalier, Lohengrin, Tannhaüser. Few having seen will forget the beauty of her as Sieglinde sitting still at the table listening half-hypnotized to Siegmund's narrative; the silver radiance of her as Ocatavian bringing in the rose; the iridescent tenderness of her Elsa; the white compassion of her Elizabeth. Critics carp at vocal imperfections, occasional explosive performances, but in the final reckoning they pale like small talk before the fact that operatic puppets are given life, that people who had hitherto small patience with "grand" opera go to Jeritza, pay top prices, listen and watch intently and go again.

When Jeritza first came to the U. S. it was the fashion for newsmen to ask all Europeans what they thought of prohibition. One approached Jeritza. She smiled a radiant smile, but did not understand the English.

"Al-co-hol." He said it slowly. "Oh yes," she answered. "I seem not to need it." Simplicity and a superb vitality have made Jeritza. She wanted to be a prima donna. She is a prima donna and nothing interferes. She sings twice a week at the Metropolitan, their highest salaried singer. She rehearses. She sleeps. Other singers may ail. Jeritza has never missed a performance. Her public (she used to call it pooblic) must not be disappointed, and to bear out the principle she sang a concert once in Brooklyn on one foot, the other so badly sprained she had to be carried on the stage and propped against the piano. Yet trembling with fatigue when it was over she could still make a joke. Bent and looking infinitely pathetic: "Won't someone do something for a poor old prima donna?"

Away from the public she is like that-unaffected, gay. She lives at the St. Regis Hotel with her husband, two maids. For recreation she loves the movies, goes sometimes to three shows in succession, sits enthralled, comes home to mimic all the players. She likes to stand at shop windows, nose pressed against the pane, to look at glittering things. But for jewels, save pearls and emeralds, she cares little, dresses simply always and in perfect taste. She likes potatoes, dumplings, sausages and cabbage, can cook them all herself and turn a handspring when she has finished eating. She hates tobacco smoke and being interviewed. "Make the story yourself," she has told more than one reporter and the results have varied from pictures of a Christmas-tree angel to a proud and haughty diva. Those who meet her find her shy, eager to please.

In Brooklyn once: "Where do you like to sing best, Madame? In New York or outside New York?" "Vhy, I like to sing in-in all America." In New Haven once: "Madame, haven't you a message for Yale?" "Yale? Vot is Yale?" "Yale, Madame, Yale College." "Vhy yes, certainly. My heartliest greetings to all the girls and all the boys." Her comedy is resistless, her tragedy just as definitely sad. She has that first ingredient for fame, a great personal magnetism. She has also a good measure of humility, believes the voice is from God.

*Son of Madame Blanche Marchesi, famed vocal teacher; grandson of the great Mathilde Marchesi, teacher of Calvé, Eames, Melba, Nordica.