"Gwyneth Jones Takes Over Title Role in Elektra"
by Alex Ross
New York Times, April 4, 1994
Singing the title role of Strauss's "Elektra" on Friday night for the first time in her Metropolitan Opera career, Gwyneth Jones snatched dramatic victory from the jaws of vocal defeat. "Allein," her opening monologue, teemed with bad signs: an underpowered lower range; an upper register colorlessly overblown and at times excruciatingly off pitch. Notes were repeatedly attacked from below and then missed altogether. Points of crucial musical tension throughout the opera fell victim to explosions of raw, ugly sound. Prospects looked bleaker than ever for the House of Atreus.
But this soprano's considerable reputation has never rested on purely vocal qualities. Her art cannot be measured listening blind, which is why she has made very few recordings. She viscerally inhabited the role, radiating Elektra's righteous madness; the flashes of anguish and fury on her face were frightening to behold. She quickly took possession of the set and made sense of its awkward topography. From the outset, she had the audience in thrall; after the curtain, shredded Stagebills rained down from the balconies like confetti.
The debate will stretch on to the crack of doom: which comes first, the music or the action? Scenes of Elektra and Chrysothemis together posed the problem concisely: Ms. Jones strove to conquer vocal weakness with theatrical assertion, while Deborah Voigt (in her second-to-last performance this season) balanced a certain dramatic hesitancy with rock-solid musicianship. As a deep believer in the fundamental musical worth of Strauss's score, I found Ms. Voigt's contribution more satisfying in the end. One singer brought the house down, the other brought the music to life.
And then there was Leonie Rysanek, who managed to do both. Having sung the other female leads in this opera with great distinction over the course of her extraordinary career, Ms. Rysanek has now forged a striking characterization of Klytamnestra. It takes some effort: she is not a true mezzo (although her soprano has darkened with age) and she has trouble moving in and out of a very husky lower register. She was also tested on Friday night by James Levine's slow, Wagnerian tempos, which muted some of the swirling scherzo quality of the mother-daughter dialogues. But her performance was of a piece, both musically and dramatically. The "Mehr Lichter!" exit was a tour-de-force of mad hauteur.
The third newcomer to the cast was Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Orest, stolidly noble and assured. Unfortunately, he did not seem to be on the same dramatic wavelength as Ms. Jones. Mr. Levine directed a grand and architecturally imposing performance, despite languid stretches in the first half; the orchestra rose to an extraordinary pitch of eloquence in the Recognition Scene. Whatever its problems, this "Elektra" is worth seeing.