This opera (The Egyptian Helen), Strauss' second exploration of Greek antiquity with writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is one of the composer's more problematic works. The searing intensity of Elektra was something neither artist sought to recreate, and the quicksilver ambiance Hofmannsthal was attempting to pin down proved elusive. While it is inaccurate to suggest that the composer's inspiration and creativity plummeted after Ariadne auf Naxos or Die Frau ohne Schatten, certain aspects of Hofmannsthal's libretto stretch credibility nearly to the breaking point. Still, many pages of the text are redeemed by the composer's incandescent writing for his title character, created for a soprano of spinto or dramatic caliber and claiming a luminous, soaring top register. At the Dresden premiere in June 1928, the heroine was sung by Elisabeth Rethberg and at the Metropolitan Opera's first performance in November of the same year by Maria Jeritza, both attractive singers and vocally close to ideal for the role.
In 1920 Hofmannsthal had begun to entertain the idea of a libretto based on the homeward journey of Helen and Menelaus after the sacking of Troy. Shortly before the opera's premiere, the writer considered that "...the night when the Greeks entered the burning city of Troy, Menelaus must have discovered his wife in one of the burning mansions and carried her out of the city between crumbling walls. This woman, victim of abduction, the most beautiful woman in the world, had been the cause of this awful decade of war, of this place strewn with dead, and of this fire..." Hofmannsthal saw in this the possibility of a dramatic work and set about researching the several rather confusing versions of the legend. He wondered how all that destruction and tragedy could have presaged the resumption of a marriage of peace and conjugal blessedness.
Euripides' play Helen fascinated Hofmannsthal, especially with its notion of a phantom Helen -- an Egyptian Helen. The mystery of the reconciliation between Helen and Menelaus so intrigued him that he concluded "only magic could have solved it." When, after several years' time, he showed the results of his work to Strauss, the composer realized that this would serve as splendid material for an opera, although he believed initially that the opera should end with the reunion at the first act's conclusion. Hofmannsthal persisted, however, with the idea that the couple should be shown in Egypt as Helen expresses her willingness to commit herself as well as her willingness to die. Thus, while the texture of the legend grew richer, the story became more complex as well.
As the collaboration progressed, both Hofmannsthal and Strauss abandoned their earlier notion of an opera with comedic overtones. Instead, the figure of Helen grew as a heroine of mystery and stature. Despite the often-convoluted libretto, the title role provides sufficient interest for a revival whenever a suitable soprano is available.