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Blood simple

elektra_amazonIs it possible for a performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra to be exciting without an exciting Elektra? It of course depends on your priorities and expectations, which will ultimately determine whether such a performance, as preserved on this DVD from Baden-Baden is for you.

Linda Watson’s first assumption of the punishing role of Elektra (she learned it only eight weeks prior to this production) is admirable for her scrupulous musicianship, command of the text, and the regality she brings to the role.

In collaboration with Christian Thielemann, she finds many phrases on which to lavish unusually refined lyric beauty, in a work often given heavy-handed treatment.  It seems, however, as though this lyrical approach is not necessarily a choice for Watson, who is unable to approach any note above the staff with true dramatic attack, always opting for a hesitant scoop which inevitably results in an unfocused, wobbly sound.

This hesitancy makes it quite obvious that she is thinking very hard about her singing and never truly inhabits the character fully, opting for restraint where the score calls for malevolent abandon.  Thankfully, the rest of her mature, sizeable voice is largely secure and not unlovely, though it is not for those prone to motion sickness.

The rest of the cast ranges from satisfactory to very good.  The Chrysothemis, Manuela Uhl, has a sympathetic stage presence but her shrill upper register often grates.  Jane Henschel really sings Klytamnestra, and by virtue of her wide palette of vocal expression is able to portray her shifting moods, from desperate and paranoid to venomous and cruel more fully than the typical aged diva often cast in this part. There is still more than a fair bit of campy mugging, but it does not come across as intended to distract from sub-par singing.  Albert Dohmen sings Orest with grave authority, deploying his charcoal bass-baritone with chilling urgency and tenderness in his reunion with his sister.  René Kollo makes a cameo as a rather bumbling, elderly Aegisth.

Herbert Wernicke’s straightforward staging, while not revelatory or especially creative, is nonetheless effective.  The production, dominated by sharp angles and stark colors, is spare and simple. This aesthetic extends to the largely static blocking.  A large wall which rotates on its diagonal axis looms ominously over the stage, at times opening to reveal a large freestanding staircase, and closing to claustrophobically restrict the action to the apron.  The limited interaction and large distances between the characters highlights their isolation, and the lack of eye contact between them gives a sense that even in dialogue they are not really communicating at all.

The carefully choreographed progression of movement and physical contact helps to structure Strauss’s long scenes, so that when there is a burst of action it is all the more climactic—a release of the static tension that had built up.  Wernicke makes a huge mistake, however, in ending the opera with Elektra slinking off the stage after having impaled herself with the axe. We are left with a meaningless, uninteresting stage picture of Orest standing on the staircase with one arm outstretched and Chrysothemis at his feet, looking as though she has just taken a hit of some really strong stuff.  Were something more compelling offered, the choice not to have Elektra onstage at the climactic ending of Elektra might have seemed justified.  (It should be noted that Wernicke is dead and that it has been left up to Bettina Goschl to ostensibly reproduce his wishes faithfully.)

The glory of this performance is Thielemann’s vivid, characterful account of Strauss’s score, full of expressive detail and ethereal beauty.  His lightness of touch and precision convey its relentlessness through clarity and vitality of articulation, rather than unremitting bombast.  This serves his thrillingly-paced and idiosyncratic reading of the finale especially well.  From a purely orchestral standpoint, it is worth acquiring just to hear the details and inner harmonies he is able to tease out of the Munich Philharmonic, thanks to his ear for balance and transparency.

Some may feel his approach too symphonic, yet there is no lack of vivid theatricality, most notably in his spiky treatment of the irascible Elektra theme which pierces the score throughout.  The level of excitement generated by the orchestra is rarely matched by the vocalism, and those expecting to hear the intensity of a Nilsson, Jones, or Behrens will be sorely disappointed.  For some, at least, Thielemann’s individual, polished, and thrilling conducting will be reason enough to acquire this DVD right away.

45 comments

  • Buster says:

    Thanks a lot -- I was hoping for a review of this!

    Linda Watson is doing the Willy Decker Elektra next season, alternating with Evelyn Herlitzius, with Ricarda Merbeth and Camilla Nylund as Chrysothemis. I definitely want to hear both casts, it is my favorite Decker production, and a lot of great singers were extra good in it (Inga Nielssen, Felicity Palmer, Eva-Maria Bundschuh, Nadine Secunde, Anne Gjevang).

  • peter says:

    I enjoyed your review very much. There’s always much to admire in Linda Watson’s singing but the absence of a strong top makes her performances, for me, a disappointment. I really want to like her more than I do. Polaski had a similar problem with her top notes but she was more compelling as a performer. Are there any sopranos out there who do have the goods, vocally that is, to sing Elektra?

    • LittleMasterMiles says:

      I know I’ll be attacked for suggesting this, but I wonder if Voigt would be an effective Elektra these days? Her Chrysothemis was so good back in the day, but to me that’s a role that needs the sheer vocal beauty that Voigt seldom musters anymore. Elektra might be better suited to her somewhat colder, harder sound nowadays. What the role needs that I have yet to see from Voigt is a sense of total dramatic abandon. Oh dear, this all sounds like terribly faint praise.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte says:

        The lack of abandon would ruin her as Elektra, unless she did a full on Charlize Theron in Monster makeover and just *went for it* then it could be amazing. Its not a role that needs a lot of sheer beauty of sound. Just thrill the hell out of us please.

      • Hadn’t been a Strauss fan (apart from Zerbinetta’s aria!) up until a couple of months ago. Seeing clips of Voigt singing Chrysotemis absolutely blew me away and now Elektra is one of my favourites!

    • scifisci says:

      Glad you enjoyed the review! I have always admired her singing but never loved it. I find the Walkure Brunnhilde to be her most successful role, though I haven’t heard her sing Isolde, which some have enjoyed. I find Polaski more compelling too and loved her Elektra with the philharmonic a few years ago. I would have preferred either Polaski or Watson to that severely underpowered and bland Susan Bullock we got at the Met last year.

      General note: I meant for it to say “…any climactic note above the staff…” I guess that’s what happens when one rushes! It’s a small but important distinction, since any note above the staff would include the passagio, where she’s generally confident.

    • danpatter says:

      Since Nilsson retired, there hasn’t been an Elektra to touch her. Varnay was wonderful, Rysanek (in her film version) was thrilling, but no one ever sang this role with the sheer ease and splendor of Nilsson in her prime. Alas, her video performances of the role caught her late in her career, when pitch was rather iffy. But the recording with Solti remains the one to beat. That said, I have certainly enjoyed Jones and Behrens in this part.

      • WindyCityOperaman says:

        I know I bring it up a lot, but Ursula Schröder-Feinen’s Elektra at both the Lyric and the Met (have a cassette of the broadcast somewhere) . . . I will NEVER forget that!

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Ha! I thought I brought up Schroder-Feinen’s Elektra too often! But I have a performance from Vienna (I think) which I bought for Jones’s Chrysothemis, and I have to say that Schroder-Feinen is the most exciting Elektra I’ve ever heard on disc.

          • peter says:

            Not to diminish Nilsson, I would take Gwyneth’s or Schröder-Feinen’s Elektra over Nilsson’s any day.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            I agree Peter. I stil listen to Nilsson’s studio recording on occasion becasue the sheer vocal security is just awesome, but overall I get far more excitement and enjoyment from Jones’s from Orange, Schroder-Feinen’s from Vienna, Behrens under Ozawa and also Behrens’s sensational Met performance on DVD with Voigt and Fassbaender which truly lives up to the hype, for me. Curiously, it isn’t a role in which I find Varnay all that thrilling -- she doesn’t get me so swept up in it as those other ladies, or indeed as Varnay herself does in Wagner, although I do love to listen to her Monologue quite often.

          • Evenhanded says:

            Well.

            I must chime in, since I agree completely. Nilsson was a wonder in many ways, but for me, Behrens and Jones share the Elektra prize. I absolutely love Behrens from the MET. And Jones at Orange -- well (!) -- they are forces to be reckoned with. Much as I admire Nilsson -- she never really created the same ‘frisson’ as the other ladies.

            Now, Jones as CHRYSOTHEMIS??? How did I not know about this? In addition -- Cocky, you should try to find the live Behrens from Houston (with Barstow and Rysanek -- both also thrilling!). I recorded it years ago from the radio, but there is a great deal of interference and the quality is poor, sadly. I had always hope to find a clean copy someday. Keep your eyes peeled! :)

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            Evenhanded -- Jones’s Chrysothemis is a marvel. I’m not sure how much of her in that sort of rep you’ve heard, but if you know the ’67 Sieglinde from Buenos Aries (which is amongst the most beautiful, evenly-produced but passionate, big and refulgent singing I’ve ever heard from anybody), it’s sort of on a par, even though it is a few years later. It’s available from Opera Depot (as is the Sieglinde).

            Thanks for the tip re the other Behrens performance -- I’ll certainly look out for it.

          • peter says:

            The 1991 Elektras in San Francisco with Gwyneth were among the most thrilling live performances of my life. I think I went to 4 or 5 of the 6 performances given. Talk about cathartic. The greatest regret in my life is not going to Shroeder-Finen’s Elektra at the Met in 1976 but OMG, what a broadcast!

          • Evenhanded says:

            Well.

            Thanks for the remarks, both Cocky and Peter. I can’t believe I forgot to mention Marton -- who I also love. I just checked the Met database and am astounded that Marton apparently never sang Elektra in that house (only Chrysothemis early on). Whatever -- the Met’s loss, for sure. Schroder-Feinen is also very interesting, but the voice is smallish for the role (at least to my ears -- I never heard her in person). She pushes a lot, and it’s a very lyrical take on the role, but still interesting overall.

          • marshiemarkII says:

            Wow, a Behrens’ love fest in parterre, unusual occurrence, but most delightedly welcome. Evenhanded it’s so nice to see you back; I often wondered what had happened to you, absent for such a long time. Your, well, “evenhanded” and knowledgable comments are always a breath of fresh air, and your absence was missed. Interestingly, I see that MrsJC is also back, and camper than ever, she is also always a major addition, and fun to read, it seems just like the old days………

            But ladies, Layla Claire is the real deal, she is answered prayers in terms of the next jugendlich, and could be a sensational Straussian soprano. The voice is gorgeous, of very ample size, and her musicality is impeccable, the phrasing both sophisticated and natural (oxymoron?), the dynamics, timbre changes, and maintenance of the musical line, well beyond her years, what is she 26 or 27?, a fabulous top notes. I forecast a Chrysothemis and most certainly a Salome in her future, as the voice has plenty of dramatic edge when needed, and no problems being heard over a VERY loud and raucous band that Jimmy whipped up for Smetana (young people ya know). Le Tout New York was at the Peter Sharp Theater last night, so she was surely noticed.

          • peter says:

            Welcome back MarshiemarkII!

          • marshiemarkII says:

            Thank you Peter, I feel like Brunnhilde beginning of Walkure Act III, with all my sistahs……. but running like mad away fromt he freight train of all my other obligations, but here I am vater!

  • oedipe says:

    OT: A nasty (flu?) bug is haunting the hallways (dressing rooms?) of La Scala and has felled MOST of the Bondy Tosca PRIMA cast for tomorrow: Jonas Kaufmann, Marco Berti, Oksana Dyka, Davide Pelissero are out; Radvanovsky and Aleksandrs Antonenko are in.

  • Bart says:

    For the most part I agree with this review, although I thought Linda Watson acted pretty well and liked her a little better than this review. Her facial expressions were great for having jumped in at the last minute and learned the role so quickly.

    The sparse set and movements actually helped focus attention on the inner conflicts of these characters, and it worked for me. It gave a feeling of bubbling emotions under a visual calm. Not sure I liked that Klytämnestra was simply standing on stairs for her “entrance,” but it did not ruin it for me. I think that entrance music is so exciting and has so much movement in it, so it is weird to see her simply revealed to just be standing there! Not a choice I would have ever made, but it was okay. I can’t wait to get the Salzburg Elektra also to compare two new Elektra dvds.

    The voices did sound overpowered by the orchestra in this dvd which surprised me. Was anyone in Baden-Baden for these performances? Were the voices drowned out? Usually in a dvd the voices are never drowned out, and I guess they aren’t really here exactly but more than the average dvd. Of course, like the reviewer said, Thielemann and the orchestra are so good that it is hard to complain about this.

  • armerjacquino says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful review- I have to say, I wasn’t remotely interested in this Elektra when I first read about its release, and you’ve made me want to at least check it out.

    One caveat, which is more related to the general than the specifics of this review: I’d say the campiness of most Klytemnestras is coincidental to their age and vocal health than you suggest. I don’t buy the idea of a singer saying to herself ‘Well, I can’t sing it, but if I ham it right up nobody will notice’.

    • armerjacquino says:

      ‘more’ coincidental, I should say.

    • scifisci says:

      I am inclined to agree, but I’ve never seen it done any other way so I don’t really know. I am very interested to see how Meier did it in Salzburg…she’s someone I can never imagine resorting to caricature.

      • Nerva Nelli says:

        Mignon Dunn kept the shreiking out of her televised Met Kltemnestras; and Viorica Cortez played it quite straight at San Fran (1984) opposite Janis Martin (excellent) and Carol Neblett ( quite good)- Ms. Resnik fdircted the show.

  • Hans Lick says:

    I’ve never heard Watson sing a note that didn’t make me wish I (or the note) were somewhere else, but I adore Thielemann in the proper rep (and Strauss is dead center of it). I heard Henschel sing her absolutely extraordinary Klytaemnestra with the NYPhilharmonic and a generally first-rate cast (Polaski in the title role) and I guess I’ll wait for Thielemann till he hires a decent singer or two.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      On a slightly different Straussian note, Glyndebourne has just announced the April release of a 1965 Rosenkavalier featuring Montsy’s debut role there as the Marschallin, Zylis-Gara as Octavian, Mathis as Sophie, Edelmann as Ochs and various Vicar favorites in the smaller roles, conducted by dear old Johnnie Pritchard. They are saying it is the only extant recording of her Marschallin. Looks good on paper, and the reviews -- not only for Vicar’s pets -- were pretty sensational.

      • Regina delle fate says:

        CD only of course.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Didn’t they have to lock Montsy up for a few days to make sure she learned the role?

        • Regina delle fate says:

          Haha! Possibly. Did she ever sing it anywhere else? Barcelona perhaps? I presume they mean only extant commercially available recording, so presumably they have no knowledge of the pirate version with a different Sophie. Their edition will be lavishly produced, too. I’m looking forward to hearing it, as much for Zylis-Gara as Caballé. Pity more sopranos don’t sing Octavian.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            According to a not particularly authoritative source, the Glyndebourne Marschallin was her first. It is actually pretty consistent with her other repertoire from Basel and Bremen though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d studied or covered it while in one of those ensembles. She’d certainly done Arabella in a couple of runs as well as Salome. I don’t know if she returned to the Marschallin after Glyndebourne.

      • Krunoslav says:

        They may well be saying that, but for many years a pirate LP edition from Glyndebourne was available with Caballe, Zylis-Gara and one Liselotte Hammes as Sophie-- so they are saying an untruth.

        Besides which the Glyndebourne website misspells Mathis’ name, in one instance, as “Matthis”.

  • La marquise de Merteuil says:

    So Watson only needed only 8 weeks to commit this hideous crime against humanity? Aside from sounding almost a tone lower compared to my other recordings -- can anyone with perfect pitch confirm this -- she also sings ALL the high notes a whole tone out of tune sometimes within this lowered pitch…

    • La Cieca says:

      This seems quite harsh. Watson moved up her learning of the role at Thielemann’s request in order to save the performances and to make the recording possible, and frankly Elektra is an extremely difficult role to sing, let alone to sing well. From what I heard of Watson, she is about in the middle of the pack among the post-Nilsson generation.

      Trying one’s best and falling short I don’t think should be called “crime against humanity;” otherwise how are we supposed to describe Pol Pot’s killing fields?

      • La marquise de Merteuil says:

        Dear LC,

        You are right, I am being unfairly harsh -- I retract my attempt at camp wit. I apologise.

        But I have to ask were there no other options? IE. a dif opera with a cast that WAS avail or some kind of postponement to the schedule?

        I must add that 8 weeks are more than enough time to learn a role that is within the singer’s fach. It may be a first stab, and not as deep an interpretation as it would be years down the line after various outings, but it is more than enough time to at least know the notes and give a more than accurate interpretation of the notes as written -- particularly in this case as it has been lowered to accomodate Watson’s voice. Just saying…

        • scifisci says:

          With all due respect Marquise….what are you talking about???

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Lowered to accomodate Watson’s voice? Are you sure? I really don’t think so. How exactly would you go about transposing sections of a through-composed opera as complex harmonically as Elektra? Cuts are possible, but not transpositions. If I’m wrong, I’d be very interested to read something about this.

          I really don’t think Watson is as bad as all that, but the intended climactic top C was a good semi-tone flat. On the whole though, she was vocally slightly superior to what I’ve heard of Polaski in this role, and dramatically less engaged, so just as much of a compromise. In terms of who is singing this role these days, I have high hopes for Theorin, but I also think Janice Baird, from what I’ve heard, gives an imperfect but exciting performance of the role, with more vocal security (or downright suitability) than either Watson or Polaski.

  • La marquise de Merteuil says:

    Dear Scifisi / Cocky
    Compared to two recordings I have the Watson recording is almost a tone lower.
    People modulate things down in through composed operas all the time -- I guess Pavs and Domingo’s transposing everything difficult down in their later outings in tenor roles is news for you.

    • armerjacquino says:

      The Pavarotti/Domingo comparison is a foolish one- taking the odd aria down a tone is a very different proposition from transposing the whole of ELEKTRA.

      • La marquise de Merteuil says:

        Uh … I meant her scene! As it was only Elektra’s monologue which I listened to and commented on. AJ pl refute that I’m wrong -- I think my Aural professors would be most interested to hear your explanation in how the lower pitch of the Watson recording equals the pitch of other recordings. Maybe the laws of Hz tuning has changed since I last had an Aural class. Anyway, I’m done with this as I don’t see the point in arguing fact.

        • scifisci says:

          FACT?!?!? Marquise, I think you need to get your hearing checked.

        • armerjacquino says:

          At no point did you say you were only referring to her monologue.

          I’ve not heard the recording in question, I was only referring to the absurdity of your Pavarotti/Domingo comparison when talking about a through-composed opera.

          So, you know, you can probably afford to dial down the pompous.

  • zinka says:

    At City opera in 1977, at Ashley Putnam’s debut, a lady in the audience was auditioning for the role of Klytaemnestra..Unfortunately, she picked a rather bad time. When I told tenor Henry Price I was there, he replied, “Me TOO!)
    Even La Cieca does not have vocal chords that strong!!!!

  • zinka says:

    http://traffic.libsyn.com/handelmania/Putnam_Scream.mp3

    Sorry….I forgot to give you the link..Here is is…the missing link..Ch