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Hier bleibt Elektra

The Met has finally released the contents of the James Levine 40th Anniversary box sets separately for those of us who didn’t have $500 lying around. I had to have for myself the 1994 telecast of Richard Strauss’ Elektra. I love this opera and I think it’s as close as this composer and his librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, ever came to perfection. Almost a hundred minutes of brutal emotional agony sprinkled liberally with some deep seated neuroses and the kind of family problems that would make even the most seasoned social worker pause and call for backup. Where are the people who call opera boring?  I want them all strapped into chairs in front of this performance right now.  

The production design by Jurgen Röse offers a Mycenaen Palace entrance fashioned after Frank Lloyd Wright on a bender.  Very few right angles and some excellent carved rock windows of faint arts and crafts influence. It’s perfectly square and is framed nicely by the 1.33 screen format of the era. Costumes in bold, naive colors and patterns except for our heroine who is in a black Nazi shift with a belt and a chest strap.

Uncle Jimmy saunters into the pit with his baton already out of the holster and you can see from his demeanor that he is ready to have himself a real good time. He’s happy, a contented man in his element. He gives everyone a quick once-over and then he counts out a simple three beat. We then have, what is essentially a controlled explosion from the orchestra pit. I swear you hear someone’s eyeglasses in the front row shatter from the concussion. It just keeps getting better from there. Release the Geschreien!

A very strong quintet of maids anchored by the luscious contralto of Ellen Rabiner and the overseer of Janet Hopkins set the story up exceedingly well. Then Hildegard Behrens does that frantic dash across the back of the stage and, beloveds ,it’s on.

If you recall, our girl Hildegard was a fairly contentious presence at the time. Her singing wasn’t appreciated by many and she wasn’t content to just sit in the German wing. Clearly a favorite of Uncle Jimmy’s she landed some very plum assignments, like the Zefferelli Tosca prima, which I’m certain had a few sopranos gnashing their teeth. She also sang some Mozart that she wasn’t particularly adored for. I remember a broadcast Donna Anna that was seriously dire and, although I appreciated her dramatic gusto as Mozart’s Elettra in Idomeneo her singing was more like gusty. Then she got Brunnhilde in the new Ring and Eva Marton started burning black candles at midnight.

At its worst, Behrens’ voice had a very gritty bottom that sounded, literally, like gears were grinding. She wasn’t afraid to use if for effect, either. At its very best the top was bronze plated with silver and had a penetrating gleam. Not a traditional dramatic sound but one of those singers who left more than a piece of herself on every stage she set foot on. During this run of performances I also recall hearing she had one very bad night. No evidence of that here. Indeed, this may well be her best ever captured on video.

She starts “Allein! Weh, ganz allein”—I won’t say carefully but, safely. She’s making an obvious effort to place the voice on the breath.  She proves how beautifully and lyrically she can sing when she’s in good nick and by the aria’s climax she bends forward, practically in half, and shoots up with her fist all the way in the air, nailing the best high C I’ve ever heard from her. She really doesn’t set a foot wrong vocally after that. There’s still the occasional grit on the bottom, don’t get me wrong, but please remember her international career didn’t even start until she was 40 and she was 57 yrs. old when this was taped. In that context it’s almost superhuman.

Then Deborah Voigt sneaks out of the house as Chrysothemis and you’d think you’ve died and gone to heaven. I had actually forgotten how magnificent she was back in the day. She sings her great opening paean to maternal love and marriage with a voice that fills Strauss’ writing with glory every time she emits breath. She thunders out the aria’s climactic phrases and runs off at the sound of their approaching mother in the orchestra.  At this point the first five rows of the Met audience are suffering from tinnitus because of the volume.

Meanwhile, the back two stories of the palace start to light up with a circus parade from Hell as we all prepare for the arrival of Klytamnestra.  Brigitte Fassbaender only sang 38 performances at the Met, mostly Octavian and Mrs. Fricka Wotan. This was also, I believe, her retirement from the stage. She was a consummate artist who, I think, was undervalued in opera.  She skates the fine line between caricature and characterization here with great skill. Never too much, never too little.

Behrens doesn’t play this interview coy at the outset like some and it makes the sudden shift of favor from the one to the other and back at the conclusion all the more exciting. Fassbaender’s gorgon is perverse in all the best ways, she relishes every word of the text and her final laughs and spiders crawl exit up the palace stairs are magnificent.

Then Debbie’s on again with the bad news about their brother Orest being dead and we get the lezzy duet bit between the the two sisters and Hildegard mounts her right there in the courtyard. They’re just traded phrases here back and forth and one’s more ravishing than the next. Frankly, at this point I don’t care what they do to each other as long as they never stop singing. I’ll just avert my glance.

Then, that four-note phrase starts to appear and build in the pit and we have Orest’s arrival. Staged at first brilliantly in shadow and then in the personage of Donald McIntyre who, at the age of 60, is the only holdover from the cast when the Met mounted this opera for Nilsson in 1980. Blessedly, he’s still in fine vocal estate and the role is short. He also make a very commanding figure on stage.

Levine and Behrens and McIntyre proceed to give a master class on the Recognition Scene.The Met orchestra at this point sounds like they’re being conducted by the Devil himself. The playing is so clean and unified and teeming with emotion and longing. It almost hurts to listen to it and nothing short of devastating which is exactly what Mr. Strauss wanted. It’s a truly profound moment in an evening of greatness. Behrens is especially moving in her remembrances of what her life was like before. Then Orest is off to do his foul work and we get two great geschrei from Fassbaender offstage. Brava. Audience members in the front orchestra sections are now showing signs of profound deafness.

Our next arrival is James King, who comes tottering on as Aegisth, and Behrens gives him a hearty welcome and, after their brief tête-à-tête, ushers him inside to his doom. It’s a shame, really, because he looks so cute in his little turban.

Then Debbie’s back and we get more, more, more and she’s just flooding the place with sound and Behrens does her dance of joy/death.

I will now pause in my revelries to say the only place I find Ms. Behrens interpretation wanting is in her dance. I don’t know why it seems like she can’t dance or she’s doing something purposefully stiff.  She gets it right at the beginning of the evening.  She does grab her arm twice as if to presage her final heart attack (clever bit, that).  I just don’t see the joy in the dance and it is in the music even if it it is primitive. It’s the most minor quibble in the world. I forgive her.

Then Elektra’s dead and Debbie loads that cannon and fires off a few more salvos as she’s begging to be let back into the palace.  The curtain falls to pandemonium with a side order of bedlam.

If I haven’t mentioned the director Otto Schenk it’s because he did his job of staging and motivating his players so skillfully and naturally that the whole thing appears to be happening before your eyes as you witness it.

Brian Large once again dependably captures the action as video director. Camera placement on this one is so good that a lot of it looks like film set ups. Glorious DTS 5.1 surround sound so you can fire up your home entertainment system, set it to stun, and have your eardrums hemorrhaging by the curtain calls.  Picture’s good since it’s only 18 years ago, although Europe and Japan were all Hi-Def by then, thanks for asking.

A magnificent souvenir of a really great night at the opera with some performances we won’t see bettered for a while. Suffice to say I’ve watched this 3 times since acquiring it a few weeks ago and will return to it gladly, very soon. I remember when Strauss sounded dissonant to me when I was first learning opera. Now it’s like my mother singing to me in the cradle.

123 comments

  • A. Poggia Turra says:

    And for something somewhat different:

  • Henry Holland says:

    Any love among Elektra fans for this:

    Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Regina Resnik, Wolfgang Windgassen, Eberhard Waechter, Gundula Janowitz
    Karl Böhm, 1965, Vienna

    I wore out two copies of the cassette of this, luckily it’s pretty easy to get on CD.

    • stevey says:

      Agreed, Henry. It’s magnificent.

      • Krunoslav says:

        Note that that set has real depth casting, including Unger and future Elektra Mastilovic besides Janowitz!

        Conductor Karl Böhm -- 1965(LI)
        Orchestra -- Wiener Philharmoniker
        Chorus -- Wiener Staatsoper

        Elektra -- Birgit Nilsson
        Chrysothemis -- Leonie Rysanek
        Clytemnestra -- Regina Resnik
        Aegisth -- Wolfgang Windgassen
        Orest -- Eberhard Wächter (Waechter)
        Ein alter Diener -- Ljubomir Pantscheff
        Ein junger Diener -- Gerhard Unger
        Die Schleppträgerin -- Margarita Lilowa
        Die Vertraute -- Margarethe Sjöstedt
        Der Pfleger des Orest -- Frederick Guthrie
        Die Aufseherin -- Danica Mastilovic
        1. Magd -- Margarita Lilowa
        2. Magd -- Margarethe Sjöstedt
        3. Magd -- Margarete Ast
        4. Magd -- Gundula Janowitz
        5. Magd -- Gerda Scheyrer

  • Krunoslav says:

    Meanwhile, my Elektras:

    Danica Mastilovic (twice)

    Janis Martin

    Penelope Daner

    Hildegard Behrens

    Gwyneth Jones (twice)

    Deborah Polaski (twice)

    Susan Bullock (twice)

    Best (no surprise here) were Polaski, Jones, Behrens and Martin.

  • grimoaldo says:

    I don’t really like to go way way back to my extreme youth -- childhood really! no, infancy -- and reminisce about all the glorious things I saw at that time, partly because it might give the impression that I am very ancient, and also because it unfortunately does create a narrative of “those were the good old days, ah the golden age of great opera, they don’t make em like that anymore” and I always swore, as a young opera queen, I would never never be like that.
    But as everyone else is talking about the live performances of Elektra they have seen, I cannot resist adding mine.
    First one I ever saw was Hamburg, 1976 I think, with Danica Mastilovic Elektra, Leonie Rysanek Chrysothemis, Astrid Varnay Klytemnestra, conducted Karl Bohm. It was magnificent, the audience went nuts, the curtain calls and ovations at the end were almost as long as the opera had been.
    Next one was the following year at Covent Garden, Birgit Nilsson’s final appearances there, with Gwyneth Jones Chrysothemis,Marta Szirmay Clytemnestra, conducted Carlos Kleiber! An overwhelming performance, the audience went crazy, the cheers and applause for Nilsson were like a tsunami.
    Did not see it live again until 1997, Deborah Polaski Elektra, Karita Mattila Chrysothemis,Felicity Palmer Clytemnestra, conductor Christian Thielemann, a great great evening, I will never forget it, Polaski was terrific.
    The last time I saw Elektra was a new production in 2003, not nearly as good as the Gotz Friedrich one it replaced, with Lisa Gasteen (very very boring vocally and dramatically if one can even use the word “dramatic” for someone who just stood there, a world away from the demented Mastilovic, the overpowering Nilsson, the intense Polaski), Anne Schwanewilms Chysothemis, did not make any impression on me at all, don’t remember a thing about her, Felcity Palmer as Clytemnestra again,good but not great, indifferent conducting by Semyon Bychkov. It was all boring, tedious, dull, yawnsville until John Tomlinson came on as Orest and then the great Siegfried Jerusalem stole the show as Aegisth and when the Aegisth is by far the most lively and interesting and memorable thing in a performance of Elektra there is something very wrong.

  • Nice to see so much love for Elektra…it’s my favourite opera too! Favourites are Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Gwyneth Jones and Marilyn Zschau(just wow!).

    I stumbled on this Elektra a while ago…she’s pretty immense imho!