Cher Public

Fairy tale

In his memoirs Richard Strauss had the foresight to put down what he called his “10 Golden Rules for Young Conductors.” It’s a fairly comprehensive list in spite of being so short with pithy comments like, “Never look encouragingly at the brass.” Number three has always been the one that’s fascinated me most: “Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music.” Seriously, how often has that happened? The average performance of Strauss’ Elektra reaches a decibel level akin to the landing deck of a fully functional aircraft carrier. I’ve even heard rumors that the John Culshaw produced ‘sonic-stage’ spectacular Decca recording with Georg Solti conducting and Birgit Nilsson’s all-out assault on the title role can be heard from space.

No question that Elektra is one of the most thrilling operas to hear performed but many conductors use it as carte blanche to try to shatter all the reeds in the woodwinds and bust the embouchures on the horns—to say nothing of the wear and tear on the participants themselves…including those selfsame conductors. A video from Vienna shows Claudio Abbado striding into the pit, a master in his prime, only to emerge for his curtain call after 90 minutes looking a full 20 years older.

I was shocked to discover that Christian Thielemann has actually followed old Herr Strauss’ advice for this new release from Deutsche Grammophon. Which is not to say the performance is played at a genteel hush but volume levels are kept decidedly on this side of the sound barrier. There’s no chance anyone will be disappointed either, for there’s still plenty of blood on the steps of the palace of Agamemnon.

Thielemann keeps the orchestra on a wonderously seductive simmer so that the menace in the score is played for subtext which allows the quiet beauty of Strauss’s orchestration to come to the fore. It also makes the long conversational passages just as interesting as those huge waves of melody that we all look forward to riding when we recognize them.

The orchestra in questions is the Statskapelle Dresden and they have a magnificent pedigree of chief conductors reaching all the way back to Carl Maria Von Weber and RIchard Wagner. Besides, they premiered Elektra in January of 1909, so it’s safe to say they know their way around the score. This performance was  recorded live on January 28 of this year at the Berlin Philharmonie following staged performances in Dresden and is the first time the orchestra has recorded this work since 1960 under Karl Bõhm, also for DG.

Their participation would be recommendation enough for this set even if it weren’t for the very fine singing it accompanies.The concert setting itself I think helps greatly because with an orchestra in a pit or studio any conductor would be tempted to play out far louder than you hear here (with knob-fiddling later by the engineers) yet because the orchestra is placed behind the singers it gives them a cushion yet still keeps their voices forward acoustically.

An especially fine cast starts with the venerable Nadine Secunde in the role of the Overseer herding a lovely sounding ensemble of maids that give us an opening scene with just the right combinations of excitement and foreboding.

Evelyn Herliztius is the devastated daughter of Agamemnon and, with the help of  Thielemann and his orchestra, she starts her opening monologue on a human level.  it’s a hell of a thing to have to warm up on and you could almost say it’s the hardest part of the role, because of its length and the need to sustain the building tessitura and dramatic intensity, that is if it weren’t for the relentless vocal writing of the remainder of the evening.

She’s hyper-conscious of her role as storyteller here and we are the benefactors. In the beginning the top is a low category squall but by the end of the confrontation with Klytaemnestra she’s very secure above the staff and by the time the recognition scene with Orest rolls around she’s very fine indeed. It’s not a superstar sound but she’s better than most and a gifted vocal actress who doesn’t every hold back.

The Chrysothemis of Anne Schwanewilms is a known commodity from the Cologne recording of 10 years ago lead by the hyper-excited Semyon Bychcov.  Her growth in the role, and as a singer, is immediately evident here. She unfurls that clear, glassy, top easily over those Straussian orchestral peaks and it’s now balanced nicely with a haunted chest voice she didn’t previously posses.

Where Bychcov was riding her like a thoroughbred in a derby, Thielemann allows her so much more space to breathe and interpret while still reaching the same level of fervor. She’s a little late getting up to the top note in the penultimate phrase of her opening aria but that’s the beauty of live recording and nothing should be perfect. She’s cool in the Janowitz tradition and not a diagnosable hysteric like some play it.

Then comes our Klytaemnestra and.. how do I say this nicely? I’ve had a problem with Waltraud Meier from the very beginning.  She’s a supreme actress and an astonishingly beautiful woman but she’s far, far, better seen and heard than just heard. From the outset of her career she’s had a zwischenfach instrument that hasn’t really ever been secure above a G-natural.

Some of her forays into the dramatic soprano repertoire have been almost harrowing when she starts going into the ledger lines on the score. On records I literally recoil and wonder how it’s possible they don’t bar the door to the studio. Watching her live, however, she’s practically hypnotic her command is so ferocious.  Let’s face it, she owns Kundry. I think she has to sign a dispensation saying she’s committed elsewhere if anyone else wants to sing it.

That said, at 58 years old, she does some of the best singing I’ve ever heard from her here as Klytaemnestra.  The role’s an excellent fit save one wince-inducing moment when she yodels on the big line about, “I will find out what blood must flow so I can sleep again”. I’m willing to draw a veil over that and call this a complete success. However, if you see her in the video from Salzburg in the production under Fabio Luisi you get the whole schnitzel and she’s astonishing.

The only other slightly controversial aspect of this performance is the casting of Rene Pape as Orest.  Mr. Pape is a bass, not the baritone that Strauss wrote the role for, not even a bass-baritone. Mr. Pape can sing anything he damn well pleases and he’s a fine Orest. He has no trouble reaching those top notes, and he never shows a hint of strain. But there’s a wrongness about the vocal color. The recognition scene here with Herliztius is treasurable. I listened to it a number of times and it’s the glory of this set.

The DG engineering team outdo themselves with the spaciousness and juicy acoustics of the Berlin concert hall and the sound palette here feels so natural and unenhanced that it does factor strongly into my full recommendation of this recording. The clarity is just astonishing, with Thielemann conjuring almost like a sorcerer. One moment that’s particularly chill-inducing is right after Aegisth makes his exit and there’s that single ascending scale on the harp and then the high tremolo on the strings starting at ppp. Amazing. It’s a shame they didn’t film it in Dresden frankly.  Still we’re lucky to have this document of this fine cast in a work that often defies the best intentions of mere mortals.