Cher Public

House of Atreus: Fall Collection

mcqueenElektra occupies a special place in the Met’s rep, in a cheap way. It’s no easier to cast than any number of things that inspire well-rehearsed refrains of “put it away for fifty years,”* and really over the last quarter century many a somber compromise has been made in casting. What sets it apart is that folks seem willing enough to lie back and think of Mycenae while Gabriele Schnaut humps the leg of Strauss’ towering score, content to soak in the piece under any conditions. 

Much is forgiven when one role is sung particularly well. Deborah Voigt‘s Chrysothemis, for a time, was unofficially the above-the-marquee draw, and if you ask me, it was maybe her finest role and an absolutely sufficient reason to go. Me, I don’t remember much at all about how Hannah Schwarz sounded that run through except that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t remember it in fifteen years. Sometimes you know.

Maybe it’s that the orchestra does so much of the work of characterization and the Met’s orchestra is ridiculously fluent in this particular idiom. But it’s more gratifying to think we Straussians who love his brief tragedy best, we the Elektoral college, if you will**, are just that hardcore that we leave the endless kvetching and melodramatic wilting to the bel cantist hothouse flowers.

Yeah I’m just trying to start a turf war there. I like Beatrice di Tenda as much as the next guy at the sports bar.

Elektra has also escaped another sort of pearl-clutching, on account of having existed at the Met since 1992 in an uncontroversially mopey production by Otto Schenk. (The angry slash of red on the curtain is, sorry to say, false advertising.) Not that Elektra, already considered rough going I guess, has been a lightning rod for radical reënvisionings as Southern Gothic or punk rock.

Thursday’s prima (at one point this week I found myself asking someone “is the first night of Hannukah the same as the Elektra prima?”*** which, I know there are supposed to be no original utterances but now I wonder) represents no big splashes, nothing to rock the boat. There’s no new production and in the marquee roles we have a mezzo well-established and well-loved in the house doing a role she’s sung the fuck out of elsewhere (at Tanglewood she pulled off the feat of unstaged dementia), an established if not exactly on-the-sides-of-buses soprano in a role she sang very solidly indeed in the much smaller house in Toronto, and… Voigt.

Some academic whose name I’m not going to google wrote a piece about how Ben Heppner‘s incessant cracking has affected our perception of his roles. (Right, in academia this is not called highly subjective bitching—it’s called a tenure dossier.) Surely much the same could be bloviated about where Ms. Voigt is concerned. The obvious topics of weight and black dresses consigned to Blogatory, there’s no reason to deny that the last five years have been vocally eventful ones that have raised many questions about the next fifteen. As someone wiser than me said, at the mention of one of her off nights, “she’s done too many years of good service to kick her to the curb, but opera companies may not know quite what to do with her.”

What I find confounding and at the same time reassuring is that what roles are going to work out in her voice and what roles aren’t isn’t easily divined. Gioconda, though not fully idiomatic, found her sounding healthy and on top of things, while Tosca has been a struggle, to say the least. The Siegfried Brunnhilde, on the evidence of the 125 gala, is a bit of a minefield; meanwhile, her Chrysothemis is as good as anything she’s ever sung.

Including her Chrysothemis. Yes, the sound is radically different from how she sang it in the 90’s. The plushness that used to go all the way up and all the way down is now largely gone, replaced by something harder and at times more strident, but whereas this stridency wrecked her gala Rosenkavalier trio, it is well-absorbed into Chrysothemis’ music, if anything adding urgency and making the girl a little less of a drag.

Effectively, Voigt now sings more like a dramatic soprano, which lent some air of Opposite Day to her pairing with Susan Bullock. Ms. Bullock, though equal to the role of Elektra, sings it with a certain lyric quality that gives to and takes from the role about what you’d expect: singing against orchestral fury gets lost at times, while a good deal of the recognition scene is sung with more tenderness than many have to lavish on it. There’s a vulnerability inherent to the sound that makes this unlike a Deborah Polaski Elektra (with her hypnotic fury verging on possession) and indeed more like a Hildegard Behrens Elektra, appropriately—fitting, as the production is dedicated to that artist.

And, like Behrens, there is some curdle to the voice that helps cut through the orchestra at times, but for listeners mostly looking for brute force in their Elektra, probably not enough. The scale of Ms. Bullock’s voice allowed, also, for a welcome degree of inflection (“Ich, Mutter? Ich?” rarely enough sounds incredulous or interrogatory, and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone slather as much venom on the words “Tochter meiner Mutter.”) The physical performance was a bit much for some, not least the nod to Elaine Benes in the Beilentanz, but I give the woman credit for aiming too high rather than too low.

Felicity Palmer, now safe to call a house favorite, was also, in her way, slightly, fruitfully miscast. In certain of Klytämnestra’s utterances (“sie redet wie an Aaaaaarzt!”) we expect an element of true grotesque available only to the contralto. Dame Palmer is not a contralto, and though she indulged in some appropriate barking on a few such lines, it was the role’s few mezzo-range money notes that she killed with. This made for a more patrician Klytämnestra than many (including some I adore) who find the Ethel Merman in the role and run with it. I’m never certain of her age, but she’s in fine form and, oh ok this just in from the internet, she’s 65.

As Miss Golightly was saying when she so rudely interrupted herself, the voice is in fine shape and the lady has no compunction about, say, lying on a big chunk of Schenkian detritus on an awkward incline, and so forth. It’s a game portrayal, even if not as forceful and menacing as some.

Fine support came from such as Evgeny Nikitin, a bass with the requisite Orest voice the color of regret, and a good loud set of maids with Wendy Bryn Harmer, compelling in the plummy role of IV (The Phantom Menace.) And the set looked really clean, so you could tell they were totally competent maids. Wolfgang Schmidt as Aegisth made some noises I’m pretty sure weren’t character-driven.

Fabio Luisi found much of the grandeur but little of the drive or brutality in the score, save perhaps for the last moments. And either he has a low strings fetish or I should try an odd numbered Balcony Box next time.

*to the tune of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres.
**but there’s really no reason to.

  • I have to say that as someone who loves to be snarky, I loved this review. It was snarky in the places I would have been snarky, and complementary when called for.

    • “That is what fiction means.”

      • Alto

        Goodness. She not only knows her Lupone but her Wilde, too. She’s the Renaissance Hag.

  • Rysanek/Jones, Orange 1991.


    • Jay

      Thrse two ladies sure tear up the pea patch!

      Those of you who go to see Catherine Zeta-Jones in ALNM may find her speaking voice uncannily similar to Dame Gwyneth’s speaking voice, at least the voice I heard decades ago. Not surprising, given that both Zeta-Jones and Dame Gwyneth are from Wales. Zeta-Jones says she’s lost a lot of her Welsh accent but as I listened to her as Desiree, it was like hearing Dame Gwyneth speak in her beautiful lilt.

      • MontyNostry

        Well, Dame Gwyneth’s Welsh lilt has cross-bred with Swiss German, whil CZJ’s Welsh lilt has fused with Southern California …

        At least CZJ won’t be a superannuated Desiree like Dame Judi Dench (Official British National Treasure) was back in the 90s at the National Theatre. She looked older than her mother, played by Sian Phillips (Welsh too, ya know) and really didn’t do fluffy and sexy too well. On the other hand, I see from an interview that CZJ is ’40’, which I have a feeling is quite creative thinking. She was 37 for years, wasn’t she?

        • armerjacquino

          CZJ made a very highly publicised West End debut in 42nd Street when she was 17, so unless she was lying then she ain’t lying now.

        • MontyNostry

          I reckon she was lying then too. She’s a strategic thinker.

        • Jay

          Regarding Dame Gwyneth, the lilt I recall was from 30 years ago so she doubtlessly sounds differently now. Underneath CZJ’s Americanized accent, there is still a pronounced Welsh lilt, though as noted, she admits she’s lost a lot of her Welsh accent. Re: CZJ’s age, she looks to be older than 40 on stage, at least as seen from that steeply raked Walter Kerr mezzanine (going up and down those stairs is like rappling the Alps!). On various vid clips when she’s not in makeup, CZJ looks younger. As for her exact age, ???

  • Some reminders of other quite unforgettable Klyts:

    I know, I know, Varnay is beyond vocal repair here, and surely over the top, but so much fun to see the two work together.

    Resnik was a great singing actress and, as peculiar as her Klytemnestra sounds (a bit like a Brooklyn Yetta, and grossly sent up in the bad Solti recording), here the level of commitment and originality is surprising. I have a notion this is Klytemnestra as Hofmanstahl-Strauss intended: nto a ragged old hag, but still a beautiful woman, her mental powers intact, crumbling under a terrible guilt complex.

    • Often admonished

      Kuchta is pretty impressive too!

      • Jay

        Damn, Kutcha is a name you don’t see too often here. Gladys did a concert Brunnhilde with Sena Jurinac as Sieglinde back in the 1960s. Jurianc was the show. There’s a Youtube clip of Gladys with Regina Resnik:

  • Harry

    As others have mentioned, I love Dame Felicity Lott…. her recordings of Richard Strauss songs are stunning.

    Regarding Electra and the character of Klytaemnestra, who can forget Regina Resnik on the famed Nilsson recording. Her ‘warums’ I can hear in my head right now… steady and supported beautifully.

    As far as the laughing cackles go,some people like them played down. Dramatically …they are as much been made in front of Electra……but more importantly in Electra’s maddened tormented mind AFTER Mother has gone with her entourage, back into the castle.
    On the question of voice longevity regarding singers who have sung Klytaemnestra, try the late Maureen Forrester on a complete live recording from Paris back in 1984. The voice was huge. At 73 she made a recording of songs ‘from all parts of / from around the World’. Jeepers….. the voice was musical, even, and fully supported. Many a current singer I am sure would like to have had the same vocal estate that Forrester had …at age 73! That is what I call ‘a singer’. A person of intelligence, who knew their own voice: all its strengths and its limitations!
    In the current fluttery times where ‘the newest things on the block’ gain absolute total attention….
    much is lost, by quickly forgetting what other singers achieved, ‘only yesterday’. Those that quietly produced good, even ,truly professional steady work: without having ‘accidents and disasters’ along the way. It is rather mandatory for glittery stars be made as Product -- for others to watch as they incandescently ‘burn’ their voice like comets. They are but mere ‘road-kill’ for opera’s devouring spotlights . Careers and voices: that are like ‘the big dipper’ at an amusement park. And haven’t we seen a lot of major, out of control vocal crashes through the top rails, of late!

    How many singers toward the end of their career can honestly say ‘ Yes the voice may be showing signs of wear after long use…..but wear, that has worn well?

    • Actually Harry, it’s quite simple. The score NEVER says anything about cackle or shouts or anything. She just signals for light, then more light, then GESTURES triumphantly at Elektra and goes inside. The laugh has a long tradition encouraged, no doubt, by the horribly grotesque screamings on the Solti set. I guess an audio representation has to have some sort of an auditory equivalent for stage business. But this, as usual with Culshaw, is overdone. Culshaw viewed opera as some sort of a Hollywood spectacle, and totally missed the human angle. The Elektra characters are still very three-dimensional. It’s a shame when they are reduced to grotesque, hysterical marionettes and it makes the whole piece less interesting.

    • kashania

      I agree that Forrester was a wonderful singer but she was born in 1930 and couldn’t have been 73.

  • Harry

    I differ with CerquettiFarrell regarding Electra’s characters ‘being 3-D’ in themselves. They are firstly symbolic parts for ‘a case study’. Yes, marionettes! They are all grotesque figures. And these three main clashing women are all suffering various forms of hysteria set to produce certain collision courses. We only get the real riches when looking at the the shocking psychological points it throws up. The opera is blunt, raw, and certainly not what you would call ‘a nice night’s entertainment’ but we are drawn to its sheer brutal impact..
    Hell I hope some feminist director does not come along and put a new twisted spin on the work.

    As far as the statement “I guess an audio representation has to have some sort of an auditory equivalent for stage business”….is concerned: in a recording ‘louder laughing’ would have the perspective effort of someone being closer…not more distant. In such case, it: ‘the ridicule’ is drilling into Electra’s mind, after the mother -daughter encounter. A reinforcement for the revenge for what Electra plans. I do not see this as any more detracting, than
    (1) Staging Electra as some mod -dress looking thing, re- titled almost as ‘Murder in The Big House…Tonight’ as so many productions do.
    (2)Those productions that finally have blood raining down the walls of the castle. Now THAT is ‘over the top’ in expressiveness.

    • Well, Harry maybe it’s my problem after all, having inherited from the Mozart operas a keen wish for the characters to be 3-D. I think Strauss is THE composer to look for that kind of depth. Maybe not Salome, but for me definitely Elektra. Maybe the play is a study in hysterics, but how can you explain, for example, the delicious oboe solo (borrowing from the string ritornello in Elektra’s monologue) just after Klyt says “einmal nicht stoerrich finde” and before Elektra’s “laesset du nicht den Bruder nicht nach Hause, Mutter?”. For me the orchestral fabric tells us much more about what COULD have been, were the characters not obsessed with their proper idees fixes. There’s an uneasy closeness between Elektra and her mother, for me, and I find it in Strauss’ scoring. The interview here is much, much more than a slinging match a-la Gioconda -- Laura. Of course, it’s all lost when Klyt is portrayed as something out of a nightmare. As with Ochs, I always like to feel a bit sorry for the queen. In the Friedrich film, you just wish somebody would rid her of her misery. I find it less humane and intersting. Klyt, in a way, is a forerunner of the Marschallin. They share similar attributes. Anyway, that’s the way I like to think of it, and regarding Elektra the opera as nothing more than a study in hysterics draws me away from it. The Met performance under Luisi stressed the humane and lyrical points within the score, kudos to him and to La Palmer for that.

      • Straussmonster

        “I found myself too monstrous, somewhat like a bird of prey. I felt this negated the fact that the woman had once possessed great beauty and dignity. The bloom of youth may have faded from her countenance, but she still retains traces of it along with her regal bearing. Left to my own devices, I certainly would have transposed the brutality of the character to other facets of the dramatic and vocal interpretation…but Mr. Friedrich was adamant and simply ‘outvoted’ me.”

        Varnay, on the Friedrich film of Elektra.

      • CruzSF

        Very well put, CerquettiFarrell. Thank you.

  • Krunoslav

    “there it was, the greatest night in the theater’s history”

    Says you!

    Metropolitan Opera House
    January 9, 1891
    United States Premiere

    Ernst II-Prechter

    Diana……………….Pauline Schueller-Haag
    Armand………………Andreas Dippel
    Katharine……………Marie Jahn
    Fuegos………………Conrad Behrens
    Heinrich…………….Juan Luria
    Pedrillo…………….Edmund Mueller
    Celema………………Bruno Lurgenstein
    Dance……………….Martha Irmler [Debut]
    Dance……………….Miss Leontine
    Dance……………….Miss Francioli
    Dance……………….Miss Polednik
    Dance……………….Fanny Lengyelffy

    Conductor……………Anton Seidl

  • Buster

    The best Klytaemnestra I heard was Ute Priew. The most over the top, and by far the scariest, was Anny Schlemm.

  • Krunoslav

    Did anyone here see Kuchta in the theatre? This video is from 1968, the last year of her` Met career. The extreme top is going ( though more present than for the Met’s new “Home Counties” Elektra) She certainly seems like a useful person to have around an opera company. Any recollections?

    • Regina delle fate

      Kuchta was American wasn’t she. The only recording I have of her is the dress rehearsal of the Karajan condcucted Frosch when Janowitz sang her one and only Kaiserin. Of course they were replaced by Leonie and Christa at the premiere.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    Any discussion of top-flight Orests must include Norman Bailey, trained by “Reggie” to be the greatest Wotan of the 20th century.

    • With that, Vicar, I concur wholeheartedly. To me Bailey is THE Wotan. The voice is surpassingly beatiful and the wealth of emotion is staggering.

  • squirrel

    Oh what a funny hat, oh what a funny little cat.

  • wladek

    Ewa Podles probably the greatest
    singer ( notice not opera star but
    singer) of our day was shattering
    as Klytemnestra with Canadian opera
    she will be doing it in Europe with the
    company in Warsaw and other cities .I have seen the role done by many of the above mentioned but none can
    come close to this phenomenon of
    a singer .

  • I love Ludwig as Klytemnaestra -- on the Ozawa/BSO recording, her voice still sounds amazing, and didn’t need any particularly histrionic emoting in her characterization.

    That scream, though! One of the dogs always starts howling at that point.

    • mrmyster

      SO, DEBBIE VOGT — announces this afternoon in an interview on the
      Met broadcast that she will be singing Elektra. I heard no further
      details; anyone know if this is news or has it been known before.
      I’ve always heard Elektra is an end-of-career role. I wonder?

      • Often admonished

        It’s a great way to go!

  • Byrnham Woode

    I never heard Kuchta, but indeed she was one of those singers who did major roles in medium/small houses, and covered the same parts for the major houses.

    At the MET in the early ’60s she stepped in as Brünnhilde a couple of times, but for the broadcast cycle she ws Sieglinde and Gutrune. At Bayreuth in 1968 & 69 she got to do a few Isolde’s when Nilsson was out of voice, and also sang the Göttterdämmerung Brünnhilde.

    I’m not surprised that she did Elektra. A useful person to have around the green room.

  • mrsjohnclaggart

    I AM Gladys Kuchta!!!!! I heard Kuchta in Philly as a very good Brunnhilde in Walkeure, also as Clytemnestra with the greatest overall Elektra I’ve seen, Inge Borkh, at the Met, and as Sieglinde (with Birgit and Jon) and Turandot (not bad).

    I heard her do Fidelio in Berlin (she recorded it, released in USA by Nonesuch, with the frankly elderly but still impressive Julius Patzak), I saw her do Elektra and Elsa there as well.

    She was one of a generation of very, very good American singers who would be more than welcome and maybe world stars today (Phyllis Curtain fabulous for instance as Salome and the Capriccio Countess in Vienna for instance), Arlene Saunders, Elizabeth Carron and especially Elinor Ross before her neurological illness caused some bad performances at the Met and forced her retirement — she had an IMMENSE voice, thrilling high notes, stamina and temperament and the Norma DVD is wonderful — she is still the best overall Gioconda I’ve seen — I saw Zinka three times but late where she was uneven though the specialness of the timbre was still there but Elinor in her prime had really almost as much in timbre and as much if not more in technical security, of course Big Renata was thrilling her first season or two in the role but she did not have the secure top or the mostly reliable intonation or the pianissimi of Elinor, and Marton who should have sung all the big Wagner roles and Elektra at the Met in the 80’s was also thrilling but Elinor who is American, I think of mixed ethnic heritage, was far more Italian-- she was also a terrific Aida, a fabulous Turandot in the time of Nilsson no less, and outstanding in Ballo and Tosca).

    Carron was an infinitely better Angelica than Racette or Stratas and a really lovely Lauretta — she would have had more sense than to try Giorgetta. She had less voice than the great Soviero (a revelation in all three roles) and was not as ‘special’ as Little Renata (better in her first two attempts at all three roles in I believe 1976 than later, though great interpretively later and sometimes able to pull it together vocally too), also a fabulous Mimi (she reduced De Stefano and the entire audience to sobs in the last act of a Philly Boheme, and people also cried through her third act) and a very good Violetta and Butterfly.

    Borkh had more humanity, nuance and heartbreak than the miraculous Nilsson or the scary Varnay (saw her in 1960 in an unforgettable concert with Dimitri Mitropoulos — possibly the most astounding and musical Elektra I’ve ever heard, Levine is a joke in comparison — Dimitri and Borkh can be heard in wonderful sound with the greatest Lisa Della Casa, Madeira and yes, Jackie Horne from Salzburg on the Orfeo d’or pressing and that is fabulous). I have loved Polaski (better in Berlin though) and Schnaut (but the pitch difficulties are always more than incidental in her performances but no worse than at least one other Elektra cited above in bizarre, mentally ill terms, and in other respects infinitely better). I thought Bullock was just OK though she has good routine and a strong take on the role.

    Good to see Maury’s review and some funny comments, with only a couple of fools (not taking everybody in).
    Oh, btw, I was at Christa’s Fidelio, having hitching hiked down from Yale for Birgit to get a huge surprise (thrilling performance, Christa’s last of the role do or die perhaps rather than perfect with Jon in amazing voice).

    • Arianna a Nasso

      Welcome back, Mrs. JC! How does that Salzburg Elektra compare to the Borkh/Mitrop/New York Phil performance with Yeend, Thebom, and Tozzi? Is it “necessary” if one has the latter?

      • Mitropoulous probably the best Elektra out there. He divided the orchestra strings left winds right so although the rec is in mono most everything is crystal clear. And the way the he makes the winds linger before the last cadence into C Major! For my money Borkh is the best Elektra out there, infinitely more touching than the admittedly more secure Nilsson. Della Casa tries hard, and the voice is glorious although strained, Chrys that works alond Strauss’ original intentions (remember the creator Margarethe Siems was originally a dramatic coloratura, and the role is a some freakish dramatic pre-twist on Zerbinetta, in a way, she then went on to create Resi). Madeira is unsubtle but the voice carries the character.
        I also love the wartime Jochum with Schlueter and the most frightening Klytemnestra ever, Gusta Hammer I think it is. Schlueter also did a very commited Elaktra for Beecham live, and this has, of course, the best Chrys in Ljuba Welitsch, pristine-voiced. She was born to sing this. I also love the RCA highlights with Reiner and Borkh, shattering throughout, and Schoeffler is the best Orest I think.
        For studio work, Sawallisch is lyrical and transparent, though he has share of high drama. Cast best EMI could have assembled at the time. I especially cherish Lipovsek and Studer. Bohm is a classic although Schech is a let-down, as are the cuts. Dresden is THE orchestra for this music.

    • Camille


      We have missed your posts so much.
      Today our constant vigilance has finally paid off !

      Please don’t get deprive us of your presence in the queendom of La Cieca again, or allow the lesser lights to drive you to distraction.

      You have the duty to set us all “straight”.

  • Often admonished

    “Dimitri and Borkh can be heard in wonderful sound with the greatest Lisa Della Casa, Madeira and yes, Jackie Horne from Salzburg on the Orfeo d’or pressing and that is fabulous.”

    Yes, yes, yes and yes. Mitropoulos adored the score, delved deep and got his hands dirty in it. Shocking and completely right.