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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

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    “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…

    • Salomanda says:

      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 says:

        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?

        • Salomanda says:

          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 says:

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

          • armerjacquino says:

            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 says:

            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 says:

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

  • TShandy says:

    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. :)

  • Gualtier M says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

          Voigt was fat then and the voice was sumptuous.

          • armerjacquino says:

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

          • peter says:

            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.

          • kashania says:

            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 says:

            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.

          • kashania says:

            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 says:

            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 says:

            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 says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

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

  • pasavant says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

          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 says:

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

  • Tamerlano says:

    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 says:

      Rigor Mozartis.

    • Joe Conda says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

    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.

  • papopera says:

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