Cher Public

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.

  • Nerva Nelli

    “a broadcast Donna Anna that was seriously dire”

    Ooo, you’re in for it from the Behrens Cargo Cult guy, for whom *only* the staccati were meant to be the flaw in her otherwise perfect Anna (sic).

    Have to disagree about Fassbaender (ya know)-- I was present at this performance and this great artist rocketed across the border of caricature as far and fast as is imaginable. Not pretty…

    • As much as I love this performance (and I truly do, above all others, whatever that does or does not say about me), I have to agree about Fassbaender. I love BF but that was just too much. Would have much rather had Ludwig, although I’ve no idea if she was still performing at that point.

      And chalk me up as another excited to see Goerke sing Elektra in Chicago. Not to mention Frau at the Met in 2013.

      • dgf

        There is a 1999 recording of a concert Elektra with Ozawa conducting Behrens as Elektra, with Ludwig as Klytaemnestra (which she truly sings rather than shrieks as does Fassbaender) and Nadine Secunde as Chrysothemis (the same as on the Rysanek film directed by Friedrich). Ludwig takes vocal honors hands down. There is a recording of the Recognition Scene from Elektra with Ludwig as Elektra done in the 1960’s. It is quite amazing.
        How’d I do on my spelling this time k0000?

        • Yes, I have I think 3 copies of the Ozawa/Behrens/Ludwig/Secunde recording, no idea how I ended up with so many. I also have a live Elektra from Montpelier with Behrens/Rysanek/DeVol, which is the weakest of the three (Met/Tanglewood/Montpelier).

          There is an entire LP (or 2?) of Ludwig singing Strauss scenes that she never (or mostly never) performed onstage, I think some some with Walter Berry. It has stuff from Ariadne, Frau, Elektra, and a couple of others. Although I may be confusing it with another LP? In any case, I’ve heard the recognition scene recording ;)

          • dgf

            That is the same recording to which I was referring. Ludwig is one of my all time favorites, whether as mezzo or soprano :)

          • armerjacquino

            Yes, I have that somewhere. It contains the scenes you mention plus the end of Act II of ROSENKAV, with Ludwig as a rather deluxe Annina (although she disappears in the plunge down to ‘Euer Gnaden’, like every Annina ever).

          • stevey

            Salomanda, Christa Ludwig and her (then) husband Walter made an album in 1963-1964 with Hollreiser conducting and then surfaced on the Tessitura label (or could it be Orfeo? It was originally from BMG I think)- they do Elektra’s recognition scene, Act 3 scene 1 of Die Frau, the final scene of Rosenkavalier Act 2 (with Ludwig as Annina!) and Ludwig sings Ariadne’s 2 arias, and the Immolation scene. It’s great!
            But I simply HAVE to post this… this is the recording of the Immolation Scene she did with Knappertsbusch in 1962. At 22 minutes, it’s a long, drawn-out interpretation of the scene, and it’s absolutely magnificent… it’s by FAR my favorite recording of the scene that I’ve ever heard, from ANYONE. From ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben’ is just searing- Ludwig is singing her GUTS out, and I hope you all like it:

        • reedroom

          The Chrysothemis in the Götz Friedrich film is Katerina Ligendza, not Nadine Secunde.

  • TShandy

    And speaking of perfection… As a gift to Parterre Box People, allow me to present an excerpt from the world’s most perfect performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. A performance so astonishing that it inspired me to start a YouTube series called The Awesomeness of God. The conversion to HD and audio enhancements were done by me. :)

    • papopera

      What is Bach doing here ? we’re into Elektra

      • TShandy

        Well, I never!

  • Gualtier M

    Just a note about the final dance: it has been performed in a number of ways. I think Polaski and Behrens here performed the role of Elektra as if she was from the beginning already a burned-out case only kept alive by hate and dreams of revenge. Therefore by the time she dances at the end, she is a shell of a woman who has nothing to live for. She is literally a hollowed out wreck who dies at the end.

    The other way is to go out with a bang and dance up a dionysian storm working yourself into heart failure. The heavy jerky exhausted dance is a valid interpretation and for me works too.

    • JedSF

      I was at this performance and had a conversation about the dance with Ms. Behrens afterwards. She said that she saw Elektra as being more male energy than female with her bent on vengeance and that she had spent time observing men dancing to come up with her angular, jolting dance. The whole evening was a performance I will never forget.

      • Erdgeist

        she had spent time observing men dancing to come up with her angular, jolting dance.

        This shatters my long-held belief that Elaine Benes was the inspiration for the dance.

        I was visiting from out of town for my first ever Met visit to see one of these performances. Behrens cancelled that night. I never got to see her :(

        But I did discover someone named Deborah Voigt, whom I hadn’t heard up until that night. She was good!

        • papopera

          Voigt was fat then and the voice was sumptuous.

          • armerjacquino

            Voigt was also 34 then, which I think is more to the point.

          • peter

            I don’t think that the loss of sumptuousness in Voigt’s voice is a result of the natural aging process. There is no reason she could not have kept a great deal of that plushness in her voice overtime but she had a dramatic weight loss in a short period of time following gastric bypass surgery. I believe that Voigt herself, said that her breath support was severely compromised as a result of the surgery. Besides the breath control issues, she was literally singing with a different body. Maybe adjustments could have been made overtime. I imagine some have been made. We all know that one does not have to be humongous to have a plush voice but I think it is wrong to attribute the loss of sumptuousness to her being 20 years older.

          • I agree with Peter. There’s no doubt that age would have taken its toll on Voigt’s voice but the quality of the voice declined pretty rapidly in the 2-3 years following her weightloss surgery. She’s the same age as Fleming who has kept her voice in fairly pristine shape. Yes, they aren’t easily comparable — different voice types, different role choices, etc, but still…

          • armerjacquino

            I get uneasy about the ‘surgery=loss of voice’ theory, firstly because it’s too pat, secondly because it often (not in your cases, peter and kashie, but often) comes hand in hand with a ‘black dress- surgery- no voice’ narrative which often seems to have an agenda behind it.

            But thirdly, and more importantly, it ignores the point that has been eloquently made by better vocal experts than me, which is that Voigt was getting into trouble on top *before* her surgery, as a result of artificially making the middle of her voice bigger. It’s funny that you should mention Fleming, kashie: she warns against precisely this issue in her book, making reference to ‘American sopranos’ but not specifically to Voigt.

            Yes, I shouldn’t have flippantly implied the changes in Voigt’s voice were only a function of age. I’m sure her surgery was a contributing factor. But I think it’s equally simplistic and inaccurate baldly to state, as so many have, that the surgery was the only reason for the deterioration.

          • AJ: Yes, I have heard some thing about Voigt having to adjust her technique anyway because of the way she had been singing. So, no, she was never going to be Fleming in terms of keeping her voice pristine. But the decline post-surgery was still fairly rapid. It’s probably a mixture of factors, not just the weight loss — just like it was with Callas.

          • I believe that Voigt herself, said that her breath support was severely compromised as a result of the surgery.

            What I understand is that it was not the actual weightloss surgery what brought the trouble, but the tummy tuck afterwards.

          • warmke

            Y’all might want to do some research on a few topics regarding Debbie: the long=term effects of repeated edema on the chords and a little known phenomenon called menopause. My vote’s with Jaquino. You can hang on to this silly “fat is better/blame it all on Cristoph Loy conspiracy theory” as long as you want, but most dramatics voices break down with heavy usage and the change doesn’t help. Drinking doesn’t help when you ought to be concentrating on keeping your shit together vocally. Everybody wants to blame someone else for there problems. We all get old. I did. Had to give up sleeping with 20 year olds. For free, at least. Get over it.

          • spiderman

            Well, the theory of my best friend is, that those are actually two totally different singers:
            Just because Deborah Voigt1 retired to live on a farm somwhere in the midlands milking cows the agency didn’t want to loose all the money of future contracts, so they found a singer, who looked (though slimmer) and sounded somehow similar to Debbie1, made her Debbie2 and invented the by-pass story!

            So it’s totally different singers we are talking about :)

  • dgf

    Elektra is my all time favorite opera. I can’t wait to hear Christine Goerke in Chicago this fall in the title role. I rememeber this 1994 Elektra well. Voight’s singing was a revelation, with torrents of magnificent sound. I heard Voight’s Egyptian Helen at the Met and her Empress in Chicago, both a few years back,(with Brewer as the Dyer’s Wife), and I will hear Voight’s Brunnhilde live this week. While Voight was phenomenal as Helen and the Empress there is no pretending that her voice was or is what it had once been prior to her weight loss. Her 1994 Chrysotemis is one for the ages. While I admired Behrens as Elektra in the 1994 production, I cannot help but compare any Elektra to my two favorites, Nilsson in her prime, and Varnay live in Carnegie Hall with Mitropolus conducting.

    • k0000

      Since you admire Voigt and Mitropoulos, it would be nice if you spelled their names correctly (as well as that of the character whom DV sang).

  • dgf

    Meow! Voigt, Helena, Mitropolous. Must have been in a hurry to pack for my week in the Big Apple.

    • dgf

      Mitropoulus that is :(

      • k0000

        No, it’s Mitropoulos (and Chrysothemis).

        • dgf

          I give up.

          • bobsnsane


  • pasavant

    Philadelphia Orchestra will be doing two concert performances of Elektra in Verizon Hall on May 10 and May 12. I’m going to both. Should be fun.

  • Will

    I am another who felt Brigitte Fassbaender’s German Expressionist Troll performance was grotesque beyond salvation. The mugging and lurching around is so over the top that I suspect it came over as caricature even from the Family Circle. If only it had been Leonie, but at least I have pirates videos of her Klytämnestra from Orange and the MET, both with Jones.

    I loved Hildegard; she could be variable in vocal quality but within a minute and a half she always had me fighting on her side.

    • Porgy Amor

      Agreed on Fassbaender, unfortunately. She does more or less the same thing under Abbado (with Marton and Studer) on the Vienna DVD of about five years earlier, but here she goes farther with it, and that isn’t a good thing.

      I do like the ’94 Met ELEKTRA for the conducting/playing and for the sisters, for very different reasons. It’s a reminder of how much Voigt had when she started out, and I’ve heard nothing better from her. Behrens is sounding raspy well before the end comes, but I love the intensity and detail of her performance, and I actually consider the dance one of the high points, appropriately spastic and frenzied.

      But it would not be my first choice. That would be either the aforementioned Abbado/Kupfer with Marton and Studer; the recent Gatti/Lehnhoff with the impressive lineup of Theorin, Westbroeck, Meier, Pape, and Gambill; or the Friedrich film.

    • Belfagor

      While on notable Klytemnestrae, did anyone happen to witness the most bizarre casting ever of that role, when Renata Scotto did it for a run in Baltimore, one of her last vocal outings -- how long ago now, 8-10 years ago? One can’t begin to imagine………

      • paddypig

        i went down to Baltimore to see Scotto’s Klytemnestra, she did it with Marilyn Zschau as Elektra and Renata Behle as Chrysothomis. Zschau was a revelation as Elektra. fabulous. Scotto was very musical and gave a stunning performance, but unfortunately most of the music did not lie in the best parts of what remained of her voice. She also did a performance in Europe with Janice Baird. She gave the role up quickly and did not persue the role of the Countess in Pique Dame which she was scheduled to do in baltimore two years later. She was not happy with the results herself. She gave it all the usual artistry and commitment that one would expect from her but like Soderstrom’s Countess in Pique Dame, the instrument itself was overtaxed. I am still glad I saw it, It was memorable

        • Belfagor

          Thanks for the reminiscence paddypig. I saw Marilyn Zschau do Elektra in concert at the BBC Proms, and she was the most memorable I’ve seen -- and those include Pauline Tinsley (too late), Eva Marton at ROH (ditto) with screaming skull Solti in the pit way past it (the orchestra were traumatized as there was a major train wreck every performance…..), Deborah Polaski (efficient), Behrens and Ludwig in concert (fitful) -- not been so lucky with this opera I guess….

      • Nerva Nelli

        “Eef you have to cut, you have to cut CHRYSOTHEMIS’ aria. Not. Mine.”

  • Tamerlano

    Her Donna Anna may have been a mess, but holy christ she was a brilliant Mozart Electra…dementia at it’s most riveting. I love the death spasms at the end and the way her body stays rigid as she’s carried off.

    • manou

      Rigor Mozartis.

      • Tamerlano


    • Joe Conda

      Thanks so much for this -- what a performance!

    • well, the performance is a vocal mess if you compare it to Vaness and (of all people) Sylvia Sass’ studio recording of the aria. What Behrens brings is her committment to the character and it is riveting to watch. This is one of my favorite versions of the aria, vocal mishanps and everything.

      • Tamerlano

        Agreed, the singing is messy (although not bad, really) but the commitment is extraordinary. I think Moser’s recording comes closest to being both demented AND technically accomplished.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Patrick, wonderful review. I laughed a lot. A good thing, since Birgit Nilsson scared me to death when she did this role. I’ve never dared venture near an Elektra since.

    • armerjacquino

      Patrick’s name on a review, like Maury’s, is a guarantee of quality.

      • Patrick Mack

        Dear amerjacquino, Many thanks for your kind words.

  • papopera

    I taped -- pirated -- that telecast and cherish it, still playing it regularly. Strauss’s gigantic score ever assembled in an opera.

  • I was at every performance of Elektra with the BSO and Hildy and Christa. They were magical performances burned into my soul. There was also the seconda donna Nadine Secunde. The opera critic back then,Richard Dyer, hailed her as the next Rysanek. What happened to her career?
    I also had the Priveldge of seeing Behren’s Elettra in the House.Her final aria had the entire audience breathless and nailed to the back of their seats.
    Earlier in her career, Behrens did a concert with the BSO,one aria each act. She opened with Come Scoglio and ended with the final scene from Salome. I was lucky enough to be sitting front row, center. I was 8 feet from her mouth. An experience not soon forgotten. I gave her a dozen white roses during her bow.

    • warmke

      What happened to Secunde’s career? Easy button for that one: she started singing badly.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Who is James Levine?

    • Rory Williams

      LOL @ QPF/ Indeed!

  • Henry Holland

    Anyone here go to the Elektra in San Francisco in 1991?

    James King with a live snake:

    What a night! Dame Gwyneth on good form, nice supporting cast, Thielemann’s incredible US opera debut and a great Andrew Serban production with huge slabs of meat and corpses and slithering animals and fake blood everywhere.

    • brooklynpunk



      It was part of my first subscription series, when I lived in SF…and one of the better/more interesting productions i actually remember, from my years there!

    • peter

      Yes, I went to 4 or 5 of those Elektras with Gwyneth in 1991. She was really on!

      • Henry Holland

        Lucky you! I had good luck with Dame Gwyneth, I heard her in SF as Elektra and the Dyer’s Wife and here in Los Angeles as Minnie, she was in terrific voice for all three. Those high notes in the Elektra at the end of Was bluten muss could have cut through steel.

        What I mostly remember is how brutal the production was, it was just relentless, even the more lyrical bits seemed menacing.

        • peter

          I was at Gwyneth’s Dyer’s Wife in LA as well and she was thrilling. Unfortunately a few years later, her Ortrud in London was not a success. It may have never been the best role for her and it was late in the day for her but still it was disappointing. Funny, I don’t remember much about the Elektra production as I was in the Balcony standing room where Gwyneth’s high notes were like trumpets.

          • Camille

            Hey peter, when were you there in LA? I saw her in October ’93 and she put that Shade lady totally in the shade. All I remember now were her veils which she fluttered like Sally May on her way to the market and flipping those errant fishies into the frying pan. She was fierce. There is nothing like a Dame.

      • MontyNostry

        I saw the fearless Gwynnie in Elektra around the same time -- maybe 1989. The trouble was I was coming down with (mild) food poisoning that evening. Overall, a scary experience!

        • MontyNostry

          But I had happier (if still deafening) experiences of Dame G in FroSch (five times in all), Walkuere, Salome, Rosenkavalier, Tosca, Turandot and in a couple of lieder recitals … Her ‘Morgen’ was something, erm, quite unique.

          • Feldmarschallin

            Dame G was one of my alltime operatic highlights as Färberin and also as Elektra, first in Genf and then in München. The FroSch was one of those Sternstunden where everything came together. Studer at her best as Kaiserin and Fassbender as die Amme. Schunk as the Kaiser and Weikl. I also heard Jones sing Butterfly and that was something. I dont think she sang many of those.

          • MontyNostry

            Feldchen, I think I saw one of those Munich FroSch performances too. Was it 1988? I always said that Studer would do nothing better than her EMI Kaiserin (which is superb) and, sadly, I was right.

          • Feldmarschallin

            Yes it was 88 during the Festspiele.

  • stevey

    I’m ashamed to admit- I never ‘got’ Behrens as Elektra, even in this performance… slightly disappointed, always. I think it’s because I find my favorite moment in the- or ANY- opera, the magnificent scena- almost always cut- that begins ‘Was bluten muBt’ SO potentially overwhelming, and I think most singers, when they get to the end of it, are happy enough just to get THROUGH it that it almost never, EVER has the full effect that it can. I understand completely… the notoriously difficult concluding line alone contains an A# (on the word “lebt”), a C (on the word “jauchzt”), and a B flat (on the word “freun”)- over full orchestra. No WONDER the scene is so frequently cut. And Behrens never overwhelmed me, in spite of her obvious gifts and contributions to the role.

    Like with most operas and pieces of music I love, I have been completely OCD in amassing recordings- my DIFFERENT Elektras (audio and video) total 27 (and a half- I’ve got highlights of someone named Marijke van der Lugt) different ones and, of these, some of them I have 2 or 3 different recordings of

    If anybody’s curious, here are my Elektras:

    -- Astrid Varnay (her high notes are like comets when young! In later recordings the voice gets rather thick and acidy)
    -- Christel Goltz (I liked her. Good, overall performance in every way without being spectacular)
    -- Inge Borkh (ideal… except for the high C’s)
    -- Birgit Nilsson (her live recording with Rysanek & Resnik is even more impressive than her studio one)
    -- Ingrid Steger (mediocre)
    -- Danica Mastilovic (thick voice. Poor sound. No like!)
    -- Ursula Schroder-Feinen (impressive)
    -- Ingrid Bjoner (I was amazed and surprised at her ease on high. Recording quality sadly rather fuzzy)
    -- Leonie Rysanek (video)
    -- Ute Vinzing (good performance, voice somewhat wooly, for some reason I don’t find her exciting)
    -- Janis Martin (I like her. High notes have a bell like quality)
    -- Gwyneth Jones (Intense, but with all the vibrato you need a Dramamine to listen to her. But still exciting!)
    -- Lia Frey-Rabin (Very impressive. I have no idea who she is)
    -- Eva Marton (good when young… should have given up the role LONG before she did. An Elektra without a C is NOT an Elektra)
    -- Marilyn Zschau (video)
    -- Deborah Polaski
    -- Susan Bullock
    -- Nadine Secunde (LOUD high notes that you wonder where they came from. Weird register breaks)
    -- Gabriele Schnaut (Acidulous and squally, no fear of the role with her, though. ‘Acquired taste’)
    -- Alessandra Marc (studio)
    -- Linda Watson (video)
    -- Irene Theorin (slightly sharp a lot. Impressive)
    -- Mona Somm (Impressive that it’s totally complete, a curious performance- sometimes she’s inaudible, sometimes she cuts through EVERYTHING. Could be the shoddy live recording)
    -- Eva Johannson (Idiosyncratic voice)
    -- Evelyn Herlitzius (Intense. Impressive. Stunning acuti. Like a younger sounding Jones)
    -- Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet (Thick voice that sounds old. If she’s not careful she’ll become another Schnaut)
    -- Christine Goerke (Quick vibrato, great performance, EXCELLENT on high)

    Of these, I somehow group (in descending order of overall impression) Borkh, Behrens, Polaski, Watson, and Bullock in (sort-of) the same group- intelligent singers who are excellent in the role in almost every way (with excellent middle registers especially)- EXCEPT at its extremes, where they more often than not fall short.

    Furthermore, I would say that Varnay, Nilsson, Schroder-Feinen, Bjoner, Herlitzius, and now (encouragingly) Goerke are the ones who seem to be able to sail through the roles highest passages, and as such create the most overwhelming auditory experience.

    Of the singers listed above, only Nilsson, Marton, Polaski, and Somm sing the opera TOTALLY complete- including the torrid ‘was bluten muBt’ (which, when uncut is almost twice the length as it is when cut- about 4 minutes to 2), and the first three are studio recordings. Mona Somm is the only Elektra that I have that performs the role absolutely complete LIVE, although from what I understand Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet did recently with Gergiev (she doesn’t in the recording that I have of her). I am unsure if anybody else does it live, but would be curious to find out.

    Another Elektra oddity of note. Astrid Varnay in two recordings (the first Met one with Mitropolous which is obscenely, ridiculously cut but has her in absolutely incredible voice, and then the later one with Karajan), and Ursula Schroder-Feinen change Elektra’s final end completely. As written, the penultimate word “und” is a D# on the staff, and then “tanzen” starts with an A# above the staff, with the last syllable a low F# (that is often times difficult to hear being so low, even on a recording). Well, Varnay and Schroder-Feinen change the score and on the last note after the A# instead of singing a low F#, sing a high B— a stunning effect. I’ve thought that it is to both soprano’s credit that they are able to sing this additional high B at the end of this demanding role.

    I hope this was somewhat interesting to you all- thanks for letting me spout off on my favourite opera!!! :-)

    • Camille

      Wow, I guess a dozen Mort de Cleopâtres is just a starter kit for you!

      I will get back to you tomorrow because ich muss schlafen but I do understand what you mean about poor Hildegard--think you had to “be there” and then she wasn’t always well, either. I don’t know, as I never heard it live, and let’s face it, nobody could forget Birgit.

      Very interesting what you say about that final note, I would love to hear it.
      Thank you, you are brilliant. Camille

      • stevey

        Hi Cammie! I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to you (just got home a little while ago…)
        I’d love to have more ‘La Mort de Cleopatres’ but I guess it’s just not as popular as, well, we’d like it to be! Perhaps that’s for the best… I like it being my hidden gem!!

        In case you’re interested, I found the complete Mitropoulos/Varnay Elektra from Carnegie Hall (1949) on Youtube. You can fast-forward to the end and hear that interpolated high B if you like! Here it is…

        Hope you’re well!! :-)

        • Camille

          Du bist ein wunderbares Kind!
          I was THRILLED to discover this version which I did not know existed. Plus my beloved Mitropoulos to lead the Phil!
          I am forever in your debt. You have made an old lady very happy
          Love from your friend and fan--

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I saw Charbonnet attempt it complete with Gergiev. She was rubbish- the whole thing was really hard to hear and effortful. I wouldn’t go near a performance in which she is singing again.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Btw, I also saw Herlitzius, who was as you describe- wonderful.

      • CarlottaBorromeo

        The real rubbish in those performances was provided by the maestro who was clearly discovering something new every time he turned a page in the score! The singers had no chance.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Isn’t there an Elektra floating around with Grob-Prandl, the perhaps best Elektra of them all? Certainly the ‘Was bluten muß’ cannot be sung better than she does. She even leaves Nilsson in the dust with her spectacular high notes which are huge and fearless. I agree that today Herlizius is the best Elektra around.

      • stevey

        Hi Feldmarschallin, I am in TOTAL agreement with you both about Herlitzius AND Grob Prandl- she’s absolutely magnificent, and I’m sorry that I DON’T have a complete Elektra with her (I DO have a recital disc that has most of the great parts, though… it’s probably my favorite for the very reasons you describe above!)
        In case you’re interested, there IS a live Elektra’s with Grob Prandl out there for purchase, I believe it’s the same performance where the magnificent selections on YouTube are from!
        Here’s some info it, if you’re interested. The label is OperaDepot:

        Gertrude Grob Prandl (Elektra)
        Gertraud Hopf (Chrysothemis)
        Erika Schubert (Klytemnestra)
        Rolf Polke (Orest)
        Dino Halpern (Aegisth)
        Conductor- Berislav Klobucar
        Live. Graz. 1963

        • Feldmarschallin

          Thank you Stevey and I will look for that Elektra.

    • Wow Stevey, that’s some list! I’m jealous! I’d be very grateful, however, if you could point me in the direction of the Goerke Elektra recording? Is it available for purchase?

      • stevey

        Hi Salomanda, I’m sorry I’m just getting back to you now. I’ve compressed my Goerke recording into a .zip file and would be happy to send it to you (or anybody else), if you like. Feel free to email me- ‘’.
        In case you’re wondering, here’s the cast list for that particular recording:

        Christine Goerke (Elektra)
        Manuela Uhl (Chrysothemis)
        Jane Henschel (Klytemnestra)
        Samuel Youn (Orest)
        Chris Merritt (Aegisth)
        Conductor- Semyon Bychkov
        Live. Madrid. 2011

        I look forward to hearing from you (and anybody else who may be interested! :-)

    • Evenhanded


      Wonderful list, Stevey. I have somehow missed hearing Herlitzius in the role, and will have to seek it out. Any performance in particular that you recommend?

      And you MUST hear Olivia Stapp as Elektra. I have a performance from Syracuse (of all places) where she is simply stunning. Elektra is definitely like potato chips: one will NEVER do. I can’t hear the piece without perusing at least 4 or 5 recordings in a row (as time permits). Glad to know I’m not alone in this fixation. :)

      • stevey

        Hi Evenhanded! Like with Salomanda, I’m sorry that I’m just getting back to you now, but if you’re interested, I’ve compressed one of my Herlitzius recordings into a .zip file and would be happy to send you (or anybody else) a copy if you like. Please email me at ‘’

        Here’s the cast list for the recording. It’s a real corker!! (Great sound, too):

        Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra)
        Eva-Maria Westbroek (Chrysothemis)
        Doris Soffel (Klytemnestra)
        Gerd Grochowski (Orest)
        Donald Kaasch (Aegisth)
        Conductor- Lothar Koenigs
        Live. Brussels (La Monnaie). 2010

        Hope to hear from you!

    • No love for perhaps the best of all, Rose Pauly!

      • Krunoslav

        Right on, Maury!

        Sadly Pauly’s stunning live excerpts from 1937 don’t seem to be on Youtube. Here is her”Zweite Brautnacht!”, though:

        • I looked, too. It makes me sad how little there is of her on record. Basically an hour of abridged Elektra, a disc worth of various arias, and a Met broadcast as Venus. Apparently she sang quite a lot of roles. The Elektra is pretty much ideal. Rock solid but unhinged.

    • Waltraute

      I very much prefer Elektra with the cuts. The uncut version has a way of meandering that doesn’t serve the drama. The whole concept of the opera is being, to quote Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

      “Was bluten muss” is the perfect example. It should be a fierce explosion after the long buildup, and without the cut it just flounders in the middle and has to build its way back up.

      Not that I mind hearing even more of Nilsson in the uncut Solti recording.

  • Buster

    Great list Stevey! Do yo know Gerda Lammers? She is on the Kempe Elektra -- my favorite recording.

    My live Elektra’s thus far have been Pauline Tinsley (intense and heartbreaking), Marilyn Zschau, Eva-Maria Bundschuh (loud!), Deborah Polaski (the singing Elektra), and Evelyn Herlitzius. The last one the most complete of all: acting, and singing. Marvelous.

    • MontyNostry

      I’d love to see Herlitzius -- but I don’t think she has ever come to London.

      • manou

        If the mountain will not come to Mahomet…

    • Hm, mine live have been Behrens (in great form), Schnaut or someone (unremembered, Voigt walked off with the show), Gasteen (loud, no C), Polaski (wonderful, intense, worn), Bullock (perfectly good, Podles walked off with the show), Bullock again (fine, a bit squallier), and I guess that’s it. Hopefully Goerke in Chicago in October but I can’t imagine I’ll actually go. As Hedwig says, travel exhausts me.

      • Podlesmania

        My only live Elektra was Larissa Gogolevskaia in May 2011. She was not (in my opinion) a very vocally accurate Elektra, but acting-wise she was on fire!!! My Goddess Ewa Podles was a wonderful Klytämnestra, but somehow it was Gogolevskaia who totally stole the show, that intense she was. Oh, and about Podles: she was not at all a physically diminished Klytämnestra: it was a mostly psychologically corrumpted character (her voice was marvelous!) Great, great acting and an unforgetable night!

        • Clita del Toro

          My only live Elektra, as far as I can remember, was Inge Borkh

          • Camille

            Clita--if one only has ONE Elektra, well then, you were indeed fortunate to have heard/seen Borkh.

            Once, I had the privilege, and thrill, of meeting her and even as a lady well advanced in years she was still extremely vital and, yes, electric is the only word to describe the impact of her personality. I can only imagine the impact she would have had in the theatre, on a good night.

          • Clita del Toro

            Cammie: I might have seen Nilsson’s Elektra, but I am not sure. I did see Nilsson’s Salome. Borkh was fabulous.

          • Camille

            Clita la Fortunatissima, is your new name!

      • peter

        Live Elektras (that I can remember):
        Danica Mastilovic with a wonderful young Eva Marton
        Birgit Nilsson (late in the day)
        Janis Martin
        Gwyneth Jones (hands down my favorite live Elektra)
        Elisabeth Connell

        My biggest regret was not attending the Ursula Shroeder-Finen Elektra at the Met when I had a chance to. That broadcast was unbelievable.

        • Krunoslav

          Boy, I thought Marton shrill and awful as Chrysothemis-- my first live ELEKTRA-- and was astonished when I later heard her in other roles.

          Anyway, the cast of those Philadelphia Orchestra performances ( May 10 and 12 at 8):

          Charles Dutoit -- Conductor

          Eva Johansson -- Soprano

          Melanie Diener -- Soprano

          Jane Henschel -- Mezzo-soprano

          Ain Anger -- Bass

          Siegfried Jerusalem -- Tenor

          Jessica Klein -- Soprano

          Allison Sanders -- Soprano

          John Easterlin -- Tenor

          Brandon Cedel -- Bass-baritone

          Oren Gradus -- Bass

          Susan Neves -- Soprano

          Kathryn Day -- Mezzo-soprano

          Laura Vlasak Nolen -- Mezzo-soprano

          Maria Zifchak -- Mezzo-soprano

          Priti Gandhi -- Soprano

          Jennifer Check -- Soprano

      • Batty Masetto

        I got to see both Varnay and Nilsson as Elektra during the same season. It made a fascinating comparison.

        It was already late in the game for Varnay but she was having a good night. She was already doing Herodias by that time and was showing signs of the painful physical slowdown that was so obvious later on. But yes, she still had the moxie to interpolate her B at the end and even did high kicks in the dance! Mödl was the Klytämnestra, by the way. They played off each other as only old friends and colleagues can.

        Nilsson -- very much not late in her game -- was a very different portrayal. Intensely physical, on top of the astonishing singing. When Chrysothemis (Berit Lindholm) ran away at the end of their scene, Birgit took a flying leap after her as though trying to bring her down with a full tackle -- landed bang face down on the floor, and pulled herself up on one elbow just in time to holler the B-flat on “sei verflucht!” brilliantly, perfectly in tune.

        After those two, I’m afraid Gwynnie, heard on an off night in SFO, could not persuade me.

        • CruzSF

          OK, Batty. I’m not usually envious about things I had zero chance of seeing, but your Varnay/Nilsson nights are exceptions. I think of you as lucky lucky lucky.

          • Henry Holland

            I’m not usually envious about things I had zero chance of seeing, but your Varnay/Nilsson nights are exceptions

            Seconded, wow.

        • Camille

          There are few things scarier than the idea of Birgit Nilsson running after one as the head linebacker of the Mycenaen team. The thought of it gives me chills.

          Boy, Batty, you are one spoiled foreverafter, fortunate opera lovin’ lucky dude.
          Too bad THAT performance wasn’t filmed for the rest of us, left with the remains of the day.

        • That Nilsson story is something else. Wow!

        • Batty Masetto

          Well if it’s any consolation, folks, Nilsson’s Klytämnestra was inexplicably a house comprimaria mezzo, an honorable lady who had neither the voice nor the personality for the role. Her name I think may have been Lilian Christensen. Basically, Birgit ate her for breakfast.

          • Nerva Nelli

            I think you may mean the Viennese mezzo Lillian Benningsen? Or was this in Sweden?

          • Batty Masetto

            You may have nailed it, Nerva. The face certainly looked familiar when I googled her. This was in Munich, where Benningsen was apparently a member of the company for decades. The mezzo in question was otherwise taking such assignments as Adelaide in Arabella. Whoever she was, she got pretty roundly booed as Klytie, and Birgit was very nice to her at the curtain calls.

      • MontyNostry

        Penelope Daner, maybe?

        • Batty Masetto

          Maybe Nadja Michael playing hooky from nursery school.

    • stevey

      Hi Buster! I’ve been DYING to hear the Lammers- How would you say she compares to everybody else?? Glad to hear you enjoyed it and my interest is definitely piqued!
      Great to hear the name of Bundschuh. I have her as an excellent Tove in a budget ‘Gurrelieder’ I acquired somewhere along the line, and she was ALSO the Senta in my very first opera production EVER- a 1996 COC “Der Fliegende Hollander’, so perhaps there’s something sentimental there. I do remember her high notes rang out just as I had hoped and dreamed they would, and would have loved to have heard her Elektra. Apart from that, even though I was a total neophyte at 20 years of age, I still remember being mighty pissed off at the production (if I recall correctly, Erik shoots Senta). And, to this day, I have pretty much detested every single COC production I have seen (there have been only four- Hollander, Salome, Queen of Spades, and Aida) and thought them to be pretentious tripe trying to be Regie-clever. Maybe it’s me!

      • stevey

        (Now why is that posted here? What have I done wrong? )

      • mrmyster

        Stevey: Lammers famously received devastating reviews for her
        Isolde (I think it was) eons ago in NYC. So, some time later, when I
        was in London and saw her billed in Strauss VLL with orchestra, I
        made a point of going to see what she was really like — and she was
        just fine. Sort of a frumpy looking older lady, with glasses on and
        a music stand, to which she was devoted. But it was a fine performance.
        Anecdote from those times: Friend at CG said to me, regarding
        Lammers: “She’s such a dyke you can hear the chains rattle when she
        walks by!” I had never heard that expression before and found it
        hilarious; still do. I have no idea if the dyke part is true, but I love
        the chains.

        • stevey

          Hi Mr.M! That’s a great anecdote about Lammers! I read a review of the Elektra cd you were talking about that said pretty much the same thing… I looked for it in the web and here it is:

          “Described by Regina Resnik as “a large woman, sort of square”, Lammers was at first sight too plain to be the obvious star lead. Legend has it that Metropolitan Opera manager Rudolf Bing mistook Lammers for a cleaning lady when she first arrived for rehearsals.”

          The poor thing! Still, apparently she could really sing and for me, that’s all that matters! I’m dying to hear her Elektra now.

        • Nerva Nelli

          After a few vodka sidecars, look what got typed:

          “Lammers famously received devastating reviews for her Isolde (I think it was) eons ago in NYC”.

          Gerda Lammers never sang Isolde in New York. Her one and only Met role was Elektra.

          • I remember one of those reviews. “A screechy as Lammers sounds as Elektra, I would hate to think what her Isolde is like.”

          • Buster

            From the Met database:

            The first “Elektra” of the season brought Gerda Lammers to the Metropolitan for her American as well as Met debut. Miss Lammers has been a somewhat elusive figure with no one knowing much about her background in advance aside from the fact that she made a startling debut several years ago at Covent Garden in the same opera. She has made no recordings and published data concerning her appearances has been decidedly scarce.

            It was therefore a musical adventure to be present at her debut, which was a major musical event of the season. Miss Lammers has a broad, but not big, voice, and her higher range can float over the orchestra with ease. It is, however, with the middle and low ranges that Miss Lammers has difficulty. Only when the orchestra was playing pianissimo could she really be heard. Her dramatic abilities are negligible and consist, in the main, of small movements to the right and left with her hands usually poised in a vampirish manner (a la Lugosi). Miss Yeend’s costume suggested the purity of Chrysothemis but her voice and her poor German diction didn’t. She was in good voice but the characterization was not there. Jean Madeira’s Klytemnestra was highly melodramatic and the same action could have easily applied for her other specialties, Ulrica and Azucena. Miss Madeira was in excellent voice and sang the role with great conviction, drama and force.

            Walter Cassel did his small role well as did Gerhard Pechner. Da Costa luckily had a minor part and Rosenstock overpowered his death scene, making many listeners that much more comfortable. Rosenstock again lifelessly conducted a Strauss opera, his tempi being too slow and drab. There is no conceivable reason why “Elektra” should have been conducted in such a manner and the fact that a national debut was being given further amplifies Rosenstock’s negligence and/or lack of understanding. The few momentary brass problems did not negate the fact that the orchestra as a whole performed well above its usual level of mediocrity.

          • Buster

            Metropolitan Opera House, March 16, 1962. Four years after the COvent Garden Eelektra with Kempe.

      • Buster

        Stevey -- in 1996 Eva-Maria Bundschuh was Elektra in that Decker production Herlitzius sang in last year (which was recorded, by the way, and will be issued on CD: Marc Albrecht conducting) -- with Anne Gjevang and Inga Nielsen. The voice was a little unwieldy for the part, but she made a huge impression on me. Great actress. Her voice never recorded very well, but she was always exciting on stage.

        Gerda Lammers and Rudolf Kempe: there is more variation there than on any other Elektra I have heard. Kempe’s chamber music like bits make the climaxes even more shocking than they normally are. The teamwork between him and Lammers is very moving. She also brings more variation to the role. You are really curious what she will do next. With her, you cannot just sample a few passages, but you have to listen to the whole thing. It is one of those recordings that spoil you for many others -- the sensitivity of it all I find spellbinding. The voice itself is not remarkably beautiful, or brilliant, but it is a great conception of the part. Think Marijke.

  • ritazetti

    I don’t think that the loss of sumptuousness in Voigt’s voice is a result of the natural aging process. There is no reason she could not have kept a great deal of that plushness in her voice overtime but she had a dramatic weight loss in a short period of time following gastric bypass surgery. I believe that Voigt herself, said that her breath support was severely compromised as a result of the surgery. Besides the breath control issues, she was literally singing with a different body. Maybe adjustments could have been made overtime. I imagine some have been made. We all know that one does not have to be humongous to have a plush voice but I think it is wrong to attribute the loss of sumptuousness to her being 20 years older.

    It’s hard for a woman to get rejected in public….( Covent Garden).
    I am sure Debbie is happier as a woman now

  • MontyNostry

    She’s not that much of a mountain for me, manou.

  • manou

    Herlitzius after reading your comment…

  • marshiemarkII

    Wow, here I wake up thinking I have to log into parterre again as I have a little offer and I find this wonderful review of this most extraordinary performance!!!!!! thank you Patrick and thank you Cieca. And to celebrate then, very much a propos here today, is my little offer:
    I have a ticket for tonight’d Gotterdammerung Grand Tier FREE. Please contact Cieca for my private email ASAP so we can make arrangements.

    I was at the Final Dress of Makropoulos yesterday and Karita was simply SENSATIONAL, the greatest singing actress today hands down.

    • We already have a taker for the ticket mentioned above.

  • Great posts- wish I’d been there to see Birgit ripping up the stage- thanks to Jimmy we’ve at least got the DVD of one of her last performances. Thank God I can now add Hildy to the collection. Thanks to all for some great contributions to this thread.