- Audio CD
- Number of Discs: 2
- Label: RCA Red Seal
- ASIN: B00002ZZ5F
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1 customer review)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 420,379 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
Helena was, according to legend, the most beautiful woman in the world at that time and, on stage, Gwyneth Jones must have possessed the requisite beauty and glamour for this taxing part. Vocally, her golden voice is strong across the range (although it is here a bit lighter than what it would become in later years) and her gleaming and fearless top can override the orchestra with ease which enables her to cope with the cruel tessitura of the part. Against that, the listener would have to put up with her wobble, which is particularly pronounced in her initial scene (she is generally in better control in Act II). To some, the wobble can mar the musical effect and compromise Strauss's soaring vocal lines. Nevertheless, at her best, the singing is radiant and incisive, and there is a fair amount of lyrical beauty as well as urgency which is appropriate to the drama. On the whole, despite the vocal imperfections, it is still a commanding performance.
Jess Thomas makes a heroic Menelaus and he may also be quite an imposing figure on the stage. Nevertheless, as heard from this recording, the voice can turn coarse in some higher notes and the singing cannot be termed subtle. Mimi Coertse's resiliant voice (including a glowing top) makes her a fine Aithra and Margaritha Lilowa's Erda-like tone is suitable for the Omniscient Mussel. Peter Glossop is a sonorous but rather gruffy Altair while Peter Scheirer provides beauty of tone, a fine sense of legato, as well as intensity of utterance for the part of Da-ud. Gruberova is, however, rather anonymous in her few bars as Hermione. The Maids and Elves are all well cast and the chorus provides good support.
In the pit, Josef Krips and the Orchestra of the State Opera present a dramatic and urgent reading of this rather garish score. However, there are also moments of great beauty and sensitivity, as in the wonderfully evocative ending of Act I. The orchestral playing is generally good (although not particularly subtle) with energetic strings, agile woodwinds and a flamboyant brass section.
Given the paucity of recordings of this opera, and despite the fact that there are some cuts in the score (for example, the brief final duet between Helena and Menelaus has been inexplicably excised), this should be a welcome addition to the catalogues.
Skimpy packaging is the only ungenerous thing about this set. I would agree with Vincent Lau from Hongkong that this is a very welcome addition to the Strauss opera catalogue, and have nothing to add to his full and fair review of the performance. I had the good fortune to hear Gwyneth Jones in one of her last accounts of Elektra at the Bastille in Paris, and well remember her opening "Agamemnon" - for the first time in my experience, that vast auditorium was filled with thrilling vocal sound. The same seems to have been true in Vienna - you can hear the voice quite clearly resonating round the house at the end of Zweite Brautnacht, and can imagine the effect her opening lines in Act One had on the Viennese audience: she either silenced their coughing (this was December) or at any rate drowned it out.
Some listeners may have trouble, as Mr Lau suggests, with Dame Gwyneth's ample vibrato and her inimitable (well, it would be best not to imitate it) way of swooping up to notes from a semitone below. As a friend of mine put it, "you may not be able to tell exactly what note you're hearing, but what a generous voice." (So generous, you might say, that you get a choice of notes for the price of one.) Some may also find her tempi slow (compared, say, to Rose Pauly in 1928, the year of the premiere, once available as a filler on Melodram). But what a performance, what an exciting evening it must have been.
Whether or not most of us need the libretto is an open question. This is one of Hofmannstahl's farthest-fetched efforts. Those who already know Die Frau ohne Schatten might comment "From the man who brought you flying, frying fish and a chorus of unborn children... now, the omniscient mussel," for indeed an all-knowing mussel figures in the cast of Helena. We may or may not want to hang on its lips. The synopsis might be enough.
Personally, I am glad to have - at last - a great performance of this rare work (I see no other complete recording on this site, for example) and for this reason give it five stars. Don't skip it and wait for a duller version with full libretto, buy it while it's still on sale!
Why the downgrade for flaws, then? Knowing both versions of the opera (the original 1928, and the 1933 revision), I find the 1928 version (which is the edition published in the Complete Stage Works, and available in a live recording, conducted by Korsten--it's available on Amazon) rather superior to the revision. Particularly jarring is the ending of this recording, which sounds tacked together--and it should, because the fantastic ending duet for Menelas and Helen is inexplicably cut. The lack of a libretto is a handicap as well, as Strauss wrote his music very much in tune with the words, and the focus of this opera is on a psychological plot. It loses a lot without an understanding of exactly what the characters are thinking and worrying about.
In summary, for sound and singing, this is a fantastic recording. But for anyone seriously interested in the opera, I recommend the complete recording on Dynamic, conducted by Korsten; get to know it, with the libretto, and then come to this recording to hear the music in its full splendor.
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