If Hugo von Hofmannsthal erred in Die Ägyptische Helena -- and he's been accused of much -- it was to make Menelaus (a tenor!) the main character of the piece. For surely he knew Strauss' treatment of tenors.* And perhaps it was this that made him go ballistic at the substitution of the correct, accomplished but somewhat dull Elisabeth Rethberg -- the Deborah Voigt of her day -- for glitzy stage animal Maria Jeritza at the piece's premiere. For a star like Jeritza can command the audience's attention when neither singing nor advancing the plot, and convince all that this story -- like the Trojan War's -- is absolutely all about her, and that the Strauss soprano bits she gets are, in fact, the evening's point.
To be fair, of course, Deborah Voigt may not be the Deborah Voigt of her day any more. The voice has shed the last of its fat and become something new (even since last season): from top to bottom there's now an edge to the sound that's interesting but sometimes acidic. And yet she still excels where she excelled -- the vocalism. With the rest she's no longer uncomfortable, as her older self on occasion was, but it's still not where energy and danger are. None will mistake her presence for Karita Mattila's.
But the crisis of the piece is Menelaus'; Helena, as written, remains static. Like Wozzeck, all value in his world disintegrates as he faces his beloved's infidelity, and... Well, things work out better for the Greek King. And why not? Poor Wozzeck loves a woman, and a hard-pressed one at that, while Menelaus is attached to Helena, the embodiment of man's universal (as he uncomfortably discovers in the desert) and unlimited valuation of woman, without which he would have had neither Trojan War nor child (which is to say, no human race).
So Helena is, while Menelaus must carry the drama. But this clashes with the musical aspects of the piece. Strauss' characteristic cruelty to tenors is almost absurd here -- and as most companies will cast this for and around the soprano anyway, even a tolerable assumption requires some luck. Further, Strauss -- again characteristically -- makes much of the opera's lyric set pieces, while the in-between sounds pretty much like loud filler. (I would have liked to see the contemplated singspiel version actually happen.) Unfortunately "the rest" includes much of what makes Menelaus sympathetic or even comprehensible.
And yet there's enough beauty in score and text to make an absorbing, worthwhile night at the opera, despite a useless, cheap-looking production (the ridiculous final curtain should've been sufficient grounds for booing) and individual performances that, while pretty good, don't demand huge praise. (Diana Damrau's deepwater Despina of an Aithra was of most interest.) My thanks to the Met for doing it, but could they cast someone more congenial for Jeritza parts (Ariadne, the Empress, Helena, and even Tosca) at some point?
[* My copy of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence is elsewhere, so I've forgotten how much discussion of voice types actually came up for this opera.]
UPDATE (4/1): Straussmonster has offered detailed thoughts on the production.