STRAUSS:  The Egyptian Helen
Gwyneth Jones (Helena); Jess Thomas (Menelas); Edita Gruberova (Hermione); Mimi Coertse (Aithra); Peter Glossop (Altair); Peter Schreier (Da-ud); Margaritha Lilowa (The omniscient Muschel); Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Josef Krips, cond. 

RCA  69429 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD)  TT:  61:06 & 65:42 

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Even in the world of unbelievable opera plots The Egyptian Helen has  special distinction with its convoluted story including four elves, a "mysterious Mussel" with power to see and know everything in the world, and  two  potions --  one to help you forget, the other to help you remember.  This opera in two acts with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal was premiered in Dresden June 6, 1928, with  the American premiere taking place at the Metropolitan Opera  Nov. 6, 1928.  Based loosely on Greek legend, the opera is about King Menelas and his wife of ten years,  Helen of Troy, whose beauty and adultery caused  the Trojan War. Menelas killed her lover, Paris, and decided that he must also kill her for her unfaithfulness  to make amends for the thousands of  deaths because of her actions.  The  "mysterious Mussel" informs  Aithra, an Egyptian sorceress,  that Menelas is about to kill Helena, and Aithra  decides to interfere.  She causes a shipwreck that brings Menelas and Helene to her palace.  Aithra admires Helena and through her magic restores Helena to her original beauty  in an attempt to reunite her with her angered husband.  Aithra gives Menelas a potion so he will forget his wife's infidelities. The potions don't prove to be effective; still  at the conclusion of the opera love defeats all obstacles as Menelas, Helena and their daughter Hermione are reunited as a happy family.  Preposterous stuff, indeed! However, for this story Strauss has written some of his most opulent music. The score  requires a dramatic soprano and a heldentenor for the two leading roles -- a difficult requirement for  opera houses -- and the role of Aithra is also very demanding. The static plot isnít the kind of opera fare most audiences find appealing -- it is hard to find much to admire in  Helena's character, and Menelas is at best a cardboard figure. With all these factors it is not surprising that this opera isn't performed very often.

There was much excitement in Vienna in 1970 when the State Opera decided to revive The Egyptian Helen, which had not been presented in that historic house since 1936. The new production was designed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle and the cast featured British soprano Gwyneth Jones who had become popular in Vienna in operas by Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini.  Jess Thomas, at the peak of his career and known for Strauss and Wagner, was Menelas. The other major role, Aithra, was Mimi Coertse. Josef Krips, considered to be an ideal conductor of music of Strauss, was on the podium. The performances delighted audiences; critics were mixed: two headlines ("Episodes in the life of an old lady called Helena" and  "Attempts at the resuscitation of Helena."

We now have this audio document of the event, recorded in splendid stereo by the Austrian Radio. In most ways it is superb.  However, after her first few years of public performance, Gwyneth Jonesí voice began to deteriorate; this had happened as early as 1970. She has the power and stamina for the scoreís difficult tessitura, and even Kripsí leisurely tempi for the famed second act opening aria are no problem for her.  It is being very kind to say that much of  her singing is  uneven  with a decided unpleasant wobble;  still there is no question that she is making  a strong case for the music.  Jones is a bit fresher in voice here  than she was in her 1979 recording with Antal Dorati conducting (London 430 381, out of print).  How unfortunate that Leonie Rysanek (whose stunning 1955 Munich performance -- available on Orfeo d'Or 424 962 -- set the standard for the role) didnít participate in this Vienna production.  Jess Thomas is magnificent as Menelas, as is Mimi Coertse as Aithra.   Orchestral playing is rich and provides a luxurious cushion for the singers.  A few stage sounds only add to the sense of occasion.

But there is a problem.  At the conclusion of the opera after Menelas, Helena and Hermione are united, there is a four-line final duet for Menelas and Helena:
          Fair winds, speed us on our journey home!
          Starry host, your sacred benediction!
          Castle high, your ancient door fling open,
          thundering, to admit the eternal pair!

Inexplicably, this final duet is not on this recording.  No texts are provided, but the synopsis does refer to, "Menelas and Helena discover each other again."  In this recording  apparently they do so in sign language.  Perhaps the missing duet will show up and future copies of the CDs will include it.   If you wish to hear The Egyptian Helen you do not have much of a choice: either this recording with Gwyneth Jones' rather unpleasant sounds, or the stunning Leonie Rysanek 1955 recording with its dated sonics.