Cher Public

Noch einmal!

Elektra DVD CoverRichard Strauss’s brilliantly disturbing Elektra was first performed at the Dresden State Opera in 1909, and arrived in America in 1910 at the Manhattan Opera House.  A second American premiere, this time in the original German, was in Philadelphia in 1931 with – and this will kill you – Nelson Eddy as Orestes. Along with Salome it represents Strauss at his most dissonant and chromatic. After Elektra, the composer would retreat to a more tonal, neo-romantic compositional style that while still harmonically complex, would never push the envelope like Elektra.

This 1994 Metropolitan Opera performance has never been commercially available and is being released on DVD as part of James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met – DVD Box Set. After watching this remarkable performance, one can only wonder why it has not been available before now! 

From her opening “Allein, Weh ganz allein!” to her final exhausted collapse the great Hildegard Behrens dominates this performance in a way few singers dare. And let’s just get this out of the way now, Behrens was a “kunst” diva, not a “stimm” diva. (See Demented: The World of the Opera Diva by Ethan Mordden.) Though she was capable of great vocal beauty and lyricism, particularly in her incredibly resonant upper resister, she was never afraid to use harsh sounds to express a character’s emotional distress. At the time of this telecast Behrens was the world’s preeminent German dramatic soprano and she brings all of her fierce intelligence, vocal resources and remarkable stagecraft to bear. Fortunately for us the camera and microphone were there to catch every last minute.

Wide of girth and radiant of voice Deborah Voigt is glorious as Chrysothemis, the sister trapped with Elektra in this nightmare or murder, vengeance and incipient madness. Considering the out of tune, over bright, driven sound she now employs, it is a shock to hear just how warm and beautiful her voice once was.

The camera does not do the over-the-top Klytämnestra of Brigitte Fassbänder any favors. Even in a theater the size of the Met it was, to put it mildly, a gigantic performance given when the German mezzo’s vocal resources were not what they once were. On video it veers perilously close to caricature and it is only through her fierce—and I mean fierce—commitment to every note, word, move and gesture that she ultimately makes it work.

As the brother returning to exact vengeance for his father’s murder, Donald McIntyre was a little old in 1994 to play Orestes, but he makes up for it with his still-impressive vocalism and committed acting. The great James King makes a brief appearance as Aegistheus, the man who helped murder Elektra’s father.

I was even impressed by the maids in the production. In the treacherously difficult opening scene every part is strongly sung with clearly defined characters and rock solid musical preparation. Mezzo Jane Shaulis is particularly good.

The production by Otto Schenk is in most ways standard fare – lots of collapsed statuary, cracked stone walls, and uneven steps – but it serves the action well and provides lots of playing areas that are fully exploited by both Schenk and lighting designer Gil Wechsler. (I particularly liked the half-seen torches inside the castle as Klytämnestra and her coterie make their way out to confront Elektra.)

Last but not least is the conductor whose career is being celebrated by this release. Seldom have I found Maestro Levine more persuasive than he is here. Elektra is one of the great orchestral scores and is massive in both size and complexity. The Maestro is in complete control of his forces, unleashing a fury of sound and emotion that never ceases to amaze.

  • Nerva Nelli

    Again, the Liederabend was triumph for those who came wanting it to be a triumph.

    “During the Renaissance, prosperity returned to Lothringia under Habsburg administration, until the Thirty Years’ War 1766 until 1871 Lorraine remained a part of France, and was the cause of much revisionism. The population was mixed, but still largely German-speaking. Nationalism only had begun to replace the feudalist system which had formed the borders. But the resurrection against the French occupation influenced much of the early German identity, which before was divided into regional identities like the Bavarians, Saxons, Frisians and many more. From 1871, the German Empire regained a part of the Lorraine region (corresponding to the current Moselle department), until it lost the First World War; still, the Lorrainians were by then not embracing the union with the Empire, but rather would have preferred remaining a part of France.[1] It was called the Imperial Province Elsaß-Lothringen, which created a revisionist movement in France as well. In the 1918 Versailles treaty, the Empire suffered severe territorial (and other) losses including Elsaß and Lothringen. With the exception of the Second World War 1939-1945, the area remained a part of France, and the administration strongly discouraged German language and culture over French”

    When was Frau Behrens’ mother born? Surely before 1918. Nothing about having been Metz-born guarantees her having been a native French speaker.

    I think the quality of HB’s French on the Berlioz recoding speaks for itself.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Nerva Nelli, given that you are probably aware that MarshiemarkII knew Behrens personally, and knows her family, surely you can see that speculating over the quality of her mother’s French by reference to an excerpt from a history of the region is not in point? If a personal acquaintance tells you her mother spoke excellent French, you really have no business questioning it.

      On another matter, even if people who are drawn to artists like Behrens (and others who cause controversy) do seem predisposed to like what she does and react positively no matter what comes out, isn’t that a nicer way to be than the opposite?

  • marshiemarkII

    • “Again, the Liederabend was triumph for those who came wanting it to be a triumph.”

    Well Ms. Nelli, Lieder recitals are typically filled with the “converted” by definition, wouldn’t you say? Why pay money and take the time to go hear someone you do not care for?. Of course it may happen that you go and your favorite is not in good voice, and you may leave disappointed, but that was most certainly not the case that night, as Behrens went from strength to strength, singing a sublime Die Nachtigall, a breathtakingly beautiful Strauss pair of Nacht and Morgen and culminating with a roof-raising Caecile, that earned her repeated standing ovation after standing ovation from a sold out Carnegie Hall. Among the many and sundry celebrities that “wanted her to have a triumph” were included Regine Crespin, Dame Gwyneth Jones and Alfred Brendel! But you probably would have quibbled with her German enunciation no doubt.

    Now what is your point regarding the historical information about Alsace-Lorraine? What does it have to do with whether Hildegard Behrens’ mother would, could, or should have spoken native French depending on her birth date? The fact is that she was a native of a border area, in which it was probably most practical to be bilingual, if at all possible. The elder Mrs Behrens was a medical doctor by profession, hence university educated at the beginning of the 20th Century, when most women were not professionals. Clearly by education and line of work it was most desirable for her to be bilingual. Furthermore, she chose to speak to her infant daughter in French before German. The fact is Hildegard Behrens spoke impeccable French in conversation. Hildegard Behrens was also an intellectual of the highest caliber, the possessor of a classic European education in all the classics subjects and jurisprudence long before she was an opera singer.

  • Olivero is my Drug of Choice

    It was a concert MMe. Behrens did with the BSO before her success with Elektra. I was seated in the front row on the aisle. MMe’s motuh was about 10 feet from me. She sand one piece in each of the acts. Her first was Come Scoglio. The second was the final scene from Salome. It was my first time hearing her live. I have never experienced such a viscerally thrilling performance since. I handed MMe. a dozen white roses at the end. I wish I had brought more.

    • Olivero is my Drug of Choice

      (it’s the red wine)

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Gosh -- I envy you. The fact that she programmed Come Scoglio surprises me though, just because a lot of it sits rather low. The Salome must have been amazing.

      I saw a Walkure Brunnhilde, Erwartung and Elektra, and was about as far away from her as one can be at each of them, but they were still spectacular. The sheer size of the voice came across most of all in the Schoenberg.

    • marshiemarkII

      Oh Olivero is My Drug, your words are almost verbatim what I thought of the same concert when the BSO brought it to Carnegie Hall in April of 1983, just a couple of months before her sensational first assumption of the complete Brunnhilde at Bayreuth. But strangely, the New York Times also wrote thusly “There was a time, of course, when a fair number of sopranos worked superbly in both dramatic and lyric voice categories. Lotte Lehmann was one such boundary-crosser. But Miss Behrens is one of the few today who manage the crossover with great success. Having changed at intermission into a crimson-splashed gown that suggested Salome had been wallowing in the Baptist’s blood, Miss Behrens poured out thrilling torrents of tone and rode easily over the orchestra, even when Strauss’s orchestration reached cataclysmic volume levels. This was Strauss singing of unimpeachable quality, both in size and theatrical intensity. Mr. Ozawa, conducting with tremendous verve and sympathy for both the soloist and the composer, did not let the music fall out of control at any moment. Why, since he has a feeling for it, doesn’t he make time to conduct more opera?”

      And yes, probably in Boston she also wore the same white ivory dress that made her look like a Grecian Princess, and then the transparent over stole with reddish streaks, so delicate and yet fiercely theatrical.

      Yes Cocky, that was a performance for the legends…….. and the Come Scoglio was equally fabulous, the runs just perfect, and the ample use of the chest voice, just as in Idomeneo, that was “Mozart with hormones” as she used to say. That was one aria that she had deep in her voice, because it was her vocalization music before EVERY performance. I heard her vocalize with it in 2004, when she sang her last stage role, the Kostelnicka in Toulouse.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Speaking of Lehmann and Behrens, I gather the ring is to be passed on to the next worthy recipient -- anybody have any intelligence on who it might be/should be?

      • Nerva Nelli

        To quote an opera review by (giggle) **Donal Henahan** to reinforce one’s claims is like an admission of defeat.

        We all know what Edward (the right-wing tribalist homophobe) Rothstein had to say about Ms. Behrens’ unforgettable (!) initial Met Elektra. Any rave clips from Bernard Holland to share with posterity?

      • marshiemarkII

        Another brilliant display of the crystal clear logic we have grown accustomed from Ms Nerva “The Giggling Historian” Nelli. So Donal Henahan who was a fabulously knowledgeable critic and in fact the last great critic the Times had, has to be held responsible for the idiocies of his successor?????? You really set standards for lunacy Ms Nelli, really.

        Look you will not get a quarrel from me about how ignorant and misinformed Edwards Rothstein was/is about music. He clearly did not know the score of Elektra when he did that stupid review, that I will be the last one to defend. Behrens was in such severe distress that terrible night in 1992, that she was leaving entire phrases out, and it is a testament to her greatness that she was able to finish the performance, and then that in that state, she didn’t damage her voice with an opera that has destroyed more than one healthy voice (Schoeder-Feinen anyone?). And then that she was able to return to such a magnificent assumption in 1994 was nothing short of miraculous!!!!. But Rothstein was an idiot not to hear all the missed notes and phrases, and I knew that very well back then. I could care less whether Rothstein is a homophobe or not. I am very comfortable in my opera queen skin, and I don’t need to go looking for every sign of homophobia to call on someone. to disqualify their opinions, especially if it is purely ad hominem and has nothing to do with the subject under discussion, i.e. opera and music. But ad hominem seems to be Herva Nelli’s specialty, especially in the absence of an argument of real substance.

        Now regarding Bernard Holland, I could provide you with a clip from a Behrens fan who wrote her that he’d been to a party the night before the premiere of the Fliegende Hollander back in 1994, and at said party Holland was boasting to everyone within ear reach that “he was just finished writing the Dutchman review” which had the predictable and by then de rigueur nastiness on Behrens vocal state, before he actually heard her. Well, how prescient of that fan, since now we know that the blessed Mr. Holland was finally caught doing precisely that, and got his due comeuppance. So all in all, you are not the only one who is aware of the dishonest practices of the Times Ms Nelli, after all that is the home of the front page articles of Judith Miller!!!!!!.

        But none of the above justifies one bit your nasty ad hominem and unwarranted attack on Donal Henahan, the one honest and knowledgeable critic they had, with your vile practice of guilt by association, you should be ashamed of yourself Ms Nelli!!!!!1

        • Nerva Nelli

          *Honest* Henahan might have been, I know nothing and said nothing to the contrary. But he was neither a knowledgeable opera critic nor a judge of good singing nor a good writer. To pretend otherwise is sheerest folly.

  • Nerva Nelli

    I have relatives in Lorraine and have asked them as well as other long-time residents about linguistic questions. Obviously, as with the Sudetenland Germans in the Czech Lands and other groups in other areas where sovereignty went back and forth between different powers using different languages, many people understood a bit of the “other” language, but few members of the dominant power culture, even professionals, bothered actually to learn the minority languages that surrounded them. You don’t imagine, do you, that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf grew up fluent in Polish or Maria Mueller in Czech?

    Any more than one imagines Gov. Jan Brewer, born in Glendale CA, is bilingual in Spanish or any Native American language?

    Yes, yes, I know that Mme. Behrens was exceptionally intelligent. Maybe she did speak good conversational French when Nadine Denize or Gilbert Py pushed backstage to chat. BUT: do you find her French idiomatic on the NUITS D’ETE?

    • Although this question is not addressed to me and I said above how I feel about the recording, to me it doesn’t sound like BAD French, so much as heavily accented. Having never heard her speak French or anything other than English or German, I have no idea what it sounded like conversationally so I can’t comment on that.

      Unrelated anecdote: about a million years ago I dated a dentist from Germany (I do have some masochistic tendencies) who told me that my German (which I speak competently, though not exactly fluently) had a Polish accent. Where I picked up a Polish accent I do not know, having grown up in Texas and having been taught German by a woman whose family has been rooted in Cologne for a long-ass time.

      • manou

        Was the dentist Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”?

        • No, but the whole experience would have been more pleasant if he had been.

        • manou


  • iltenoredigrazia

    Donald Henahan?! You gotta be kidding. I doubt there ever was a single opera review by him that did not include at least one blatant error. Musical criticism reached rock bottom with him.

    • mrmyster

      digrazia: “one blatant error,” like mis-spelling
      Henahan’s first name, which, like it or not, is
      Donal! How delightful, digrazia!

    • marshiemarkII

      Delightful indeed old friend, but definitely not atypical of the smug digrazia, whose last great contribution I recall, was positing the brilliant argument that “Spanish” kids in the 21st century are not into opera, because it is not properly “marketed” to them as “Kool”. It took me hours to recover from the laughing, as digrazia was ignoring two thousand years of cultural history, in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the ultramarine possessions, which subsequently became Latin America, a history on which a large portion of opera is based!!!!!!. From his perspective, “cultcha” must have began in the blessed Unites States, somewhere around the mid-1950s, and reached its apex when Maria, and Renata, and Birgit, were doing their bits at the glorious Old Met on 39th Street, with digrazia, obviously as one of select few to be admitted to such an elevated circle, to pontificate forever and ever.

      And if said “cultcha” did not get the benefit of Madison Avenue sign of approval for the enlightment of the world masses, then of necessity those poor natives would have to content themselves only with that which is “Kool”, from the global purveyor of all that is entertainment and culture. Can you really take someone like that seriously after that?