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.

  • phoenix

    Revealing perceptions, honest opinions -- really nice work here -- a worthwhile read -- but you still can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

  • Evenhanded


    Excellent review, Patrick. I agree with everything you wrote, though you showed significantly more restraint in your praise (all around) than I would have. IMO, this is an absolutely astonishing recording. There is hardly a weak moment, and at the center of it all is the blazing, fearless Herlitzius. She does some of the most harrowing, risky, amazingly forceful singing that I’ve ever experienced. She more than holds her own in a discography crowded with great Elektras. In fact, she bests many of the “greats”, in my opinion, but that will be debatable among Parterre contributors. All in all -- a wonderful recording, and a must-have for those who love the opera. (And who doesn’t?!?!)

  • Thanks for the fine review. Sounds like this would be a good complement to the Solti/Nilsson.

    • MontyNostry

      You know what, I never liked the legendary Solti/Nilsson recording. I just tend to think of it is as angular, noisy and grotesque (for which I’d blame Solti and Culshaw rather than Nilsson -- though I prefer Varnay’s darker, fuller sound in the role). That being said, I haven’t listened to it for years. I like the sound of Herlitzius, though I haven’t seem her perform.

      • It’s definitely not subtle but I love the “all-out assault” approach. It is just so visceral and sonically thrilling. Varnay and Nilsson are my favourite Elektras.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I think most of Nilsson’s famous studio recordings come off as slightly one-dimensional I’m afraid, viscerally exciting though many of them are. Funnily enough, I think she can be more touching in stuff that suits her less well, for example Aida, Tosca and Ballo. When it comes to her great Wagner and Strauss roles and Turandot, it’s hard to pick up on anything other than amazing high notes. No doubt seeing her was altogether different, though.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Don’t forget there has been another recording of Elektra with Herlitzius in the title role available for some time, which might suit those who, like me, dislike Schwanewilms’s singing. Camilla Nylund is the Chrysothemis, and Michaela Schuster is the Klytamnestra, under Marc Albrecht:

    • phoenix

      That is an excellent performance, one of the best I ever heard. I remember you writing that you saw it live in Amsterdam, Kurwenal.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Indeed I did, and it was fantastic. First and, so far, only time I saw Herlitzius live. Really liked Nylund and Schuster too.

    • The Conte

      Thanks Kurwenal. Arecording sans Schwanewilms would be extremely welcome for me, however, I wouldn’t swop Meier for Schuster in a million years.

      I’m listening to Herlitzius on YouTube now and I’m impressed.

  • Patrick Mack

    And the production from Aix comes out on video at the end of August.

    • phoenix

      If this is the same video as was broadcast from Aix last year online, the rich, warm-toned Pieczonka makes it worthwhile. But Marc Albrecht’s Nederlandse Elektra (Kurwenal mentions above) gets my vote as the all-around best live performance modern recording.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Listening to the Aix now (it’s on YouTube) and Pieczonka is really wonderful. Herlitzius is in very inspired form but sounds more on top of her voice in the Amsterdam performance. Great stuff though.

    • Feldmarschallin

      It is already out and have seen it around.

      • armerjacquino

        Different release dates in Europe and the US, feld. As per patrick’s Amazon link, the US doesn’t get the Aix ELEKTRA until August 26. It was released on 26 May in the UK and 20 April in Germany.

        • Feldmarschallin

          Ah that explains why I have seen it for months now at Beck.

  • The_Kid

    Being the huge Nilsson fan that I am, I’d probably be partial, but here’s my take on the matter: was Strauss’ edict a matter of necessity? How big were the voices of the sopranos of his time? Also, wasn’t he averse to forte singing in general (hence the anecdote about the brass vs. Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the first Klytemnestra)? Maybe he wanted a more ‘young’ sounding Salome and Elektra? Margarete Teschenmaker, who created some Straussian roles, can be heard singing Reiza on a recording, and her voice seems tiny compared to other people who have recorded the role, like Debbie Voigt or Eileen Farrell. Hence the instructions to the instrumentalists to tone it down? Would he have changed his mind if he had listened to the truly huge voices of the Wagnerian/Straussian golden age?
    I agree with the comment that Nilsson is often more expressive in the Verdi/Puccini rep than she is given credit for. I wish she had done a proper Fanciulla on stage, with a Jack Rance and a Dick Johnson who could measure up to her vocal capabilities.

    • The Conte

      I was under the impression that Strauss said that the orchestra should play so loud during performances of Elektra, they drowned out the singers!

  • Porgy Amor

    Salzburg video with Waltraud Meier…you mean Gatti rather than Luisi, right? That Lehnhoff production is the best Elektra DVD to date, and several others are good enough to make it a race worth winning. Which brings me to…

    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.

    Well, it cannot help that half the audience is booing him and Harry Kupfer. Unconscionable in both cases, but especially Abbado’s; it’s one of the finest accounts of that score I’ve heard, lithe and vivid and with a wonderful sense of the lines always pointing and accumulating into shapes. I can imagine what their problems were with Kupfer’s staging, although I don’t share them, but I Just Don’t Get It when they turn on Abbado too. It didn’t lumber and drag enough for them?

    • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

      It was, indeed, Daniele Gatti: I was there. I found him extremely uneven, perhaps due to the fact that he was commuting to and from Bayreuth where he was simultaneously conducting “Parsifal” in the Herheim production.

      I was also underwhelmed by Meier as Klytämnestra, who I have greatly admired in the past (a 2001 München “Tristan” stands out). I have a ticket for her Isolde -- Act II only -- at Salzburg with Barenboim and his West-East Divan Orchestra which I am kind of dreading (Seiffert as Tristan).

      • phoenix

  • Doctor Octavian

    Thanks for the great review, Patrick. I’m one of those who regularly crank up the Solti/Nilsson and wallow in the decibels (along with my unwitting neighbors). I’m wondering if this recording observes those annoying little cuts in a) Elektra’s monumental mama slap-down and b)the semi-icky second Chrysothemis scene that almost all performances and recordings now feel the need to make. Say what you will about Solti, but every single note is there. Although sanctioned by R.S. himself, I miss those measures every single time. In addition to providing some necessary buildup to nearby climaxes, they also contain some of Hoffmansthal’s cooler dark imagery.

  • John L

    Nice review. It is interesting that Strauss wanted the orchestra held back and a more subtle interpretation when his pieces like Salome and Elektra are performed. And maybe that was just a function of the singer that he had at that time. Singers like Maria Reining and Maria Jeritza always seemed to transpose notes down (not sure if either sang the heavy duty Strauss roles). But to me, there is nothing in the music or the story that calls for subtlety. Or at least not in long stretches. I may be biased since my first Salome and Elektra were Solti’s with Nilsson. It’s definitely an “all-out assault” approach, where everything is faster and louder. I’ve then acquired Sinopoli’s Salome and Elektra, in which I’ve heard things and an almost whimisicalness (more with Salome) to Strauss that I didn’t hear with Solti. But I would choose Solti over Sinopoli, with the exception that Deborah Voigt’s Chrysothemis made me buy the Sinopoli Elektra.

    This seems like a nice modern version of Elektra. But I’m not sure Waltraud Meier has the chest voice to pull off Klytemnestra. As you said I’m sure seeing her in person really adds to the role much more so than just hearing an audio recording. It would be interesting comparing this to Solti and Sinopoli.

  • operaassport

    I saw it in the house and it was extremely loud. Methinks DG had good engineers.
    It was a devastating performance.

  • Camille

    Some nice photos of this very same production from the SemperOper of THE Ur Disfunctional Family:

    A thought:
    The creators of the roles of Chrysothemis and Orest (Margarethe Siems and Carl Perron) also sang in other Uraufführungen of Herr Doktor Strauss, namely, Zerbinetta(!) in the original 1912 version of Ariadne auf Naxos, and Herr Perron was the first Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier. Meaning, a voice capable of a very high tessitura in the first instance—F# in alt, and very low—low E, in the second. Lots of latitude there. The very, very. Ersatile Frau Siems ALSO created die Marschallin as well, and Herr Perron sang Wotan and the Dutchman. As Orest is a role where gravitas and a sense of the forthcoming and foreboding doom of the Furies is inherent and trumps all, the lower voice sounds most appropriate to mine ear.

    After having heard about a half dozen of Thielemann’s FRoSCH at the MET, I look forward to his take on this Elektra with great interest. At the time I absolutely marveled at the way in which he could make every single note of that score really count for something. When I have heard others conduct this beloved Sacher Torte, it seemed interminable and bombastic. Therefore, if there be any mortal who might bring out Mendelssohn, I would place my best bet on him.

    Thank you, Patrick Mack, for another of your always entertaining reviews.

    Note to Monty Nostry: others feel similarly about the Solti Recording, for I recall Our Own Cerquetti Farrell going on a long dissertation on that subject.

    • Camille

      That should be Very, Very VERSATILE…ecc.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Camille why don’t you go to Dresden this December? A group of us are going for Rosenkavalier with Thielemann and then Elektra the next night with Pankratowa which should be interesting. You can hang out with us.

  • Buster

    Thanks! I saw this minus Secunde, Meier, Schwanewilms, Pape, and Thielemann, but at least the great Herlitzius was there, in her flapper dress.
    Don’t know any other soprano who gets so dangerously close to Elektra. Love her.

    • Camille

      Yes, darling Buster, I certainly think so too.

      From these photos she expresses the Elektra essence to a “T”, maybe as well as or somewhat reminiscent of that other wonderful Elektra, immortal Inge Borkh.

      Very stylish looking production which even a Regie Retard like myself could have enjoyed.

      Hoping to hear reports on all your summer festival visits!

      Huie en Dhuie (you know what I mean!)

      • Buster

        Not much planned, Camille, but lots of music to look forward to: Ruggero Raimondi and Barbara Haveman in Tosca should be great fun. He’ll be 73! Hope you have a great summer too.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Well I saw the last performance in Dresden with the Premiere cast and it was one of my most exciting performances I have ever seen. Herlitzius is certainly up there with the great Elektras of Borkh and Varnay. I have never been that great of a Nilsson fan and cannot stand Solti. Along with Thielemann and Schwanewilms plus Meier and Pape an Elektra for the ages. Only slightly negative thing was the boring production.

      • bronzino

        I just now relistened to the Borkh full length performance (Salzburgh) and the snippets with Fritz and I am DUMBFOUNDED that anyone could equate Herlitzius’s sound with such magnificance as Borkh’s. Borkh is the Elektra of the ages--the wobble and the small size of H’s instrument make it painful to listen to in this role.

        • Feldmarschallin

          Small size of her instrument? Where have you heard her? Yes why don’t you call up Borkh (perhaps I can even get you her number from the retirement home) and ask if she will sing the Zürich and München performances next July. And while you are at it have Bachler cancel Pieczonkas contract and dig out the Welitsch recording and they can play that onstage. But do tell when when you have heard Herlitzius on stage. I have heard all the great Elektras of the last 35 years and am overwhelmed by Herlitzius and can put her in the same category as Jones who was spectacular as well.

          • bronzino

            Yes, darling, I have heard them all too. But ‘for the ages’ means ‘for all time, past and present’. If you like this H person, well, OK, and maybe that is the best that we can get for today.

            • MontyNostry

              Funnily, enough, on recordings, Borkh’s sound never seems especially big, though her intensity is formidable (her Faerberin in the Keilberth FroSch made an impression on me many years ago). What was it like in the theatre?

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          Herlitzius has a large voice by any standard.

          • Often admonished


            There are some large voices where one’s immediate reaction is WOA and you want to bathe in the sound.

            And there are some large voices where one’s immediate reaction is DUCK.

            Largely due to her execrable intonation on the nights I’ve heard her, I think H belongs in the second category. I’d be happy to be corrected but I’d need evidence.

  • Satisfied

    Anyone have any luck finding on Spotify? The cover art comes up with Herliztius’ name but not the recording itself (only the Amsterdam recording…)

  • MontyNostry

    There is a big profile of Herlitzius in the August edition of Opera magazine, which is Strauss-themed (and makes no mention of Commonwealth singers). She sounds like a nice woman with her head firmly screwed on. All those crazy heroines clearly haven’t got to her.

    • Buster

      Thanks Monty -- just found a copy. Not so sure Czardasfürstin is right for her, though. I’ll try to make it to Zürich for that Loy Elektra, probably my last chance to see Hanna Schwarz in action.

      • MontyNostry

        Maybe she will dance the czardas like Elektra doing her triumphal dance of death!

        • Buster

          In a flapper dress.

          Seriously, the only operetta role I could think of that would fit very well, is Vera Lisaveta in Der letzte Walzer: interesting text, beautiful music, and lots of acting opportunities.

      • Buster

        The Zurich Elektra is by Kusej, I see. Prices are rather steep, but Herlitzius and Schwarz are well worth it.

        • Feldmarschallin

          Buster make sure you look exactly where those places are. I know from someone who bought those tickets for 98SFR and saw nothing. Perhaps Marcello can give you tips if he isn’t too busy with Musetta at the moment.

          • Buster

            Thanks, FM! I just got something on the first row of the upper balcony, towards the side. Crazy prices.

    • Krunoslav

      For you, Monty, from Opera-L:

      “Re Elektra the overseer was Pauline Tinsley who later became a stunning
      Elektra easily equal to Nilsson if not even better in
      certain aspects! She once told me the role of Elektra was not that difficult
      to sing!
      Neville living in England”

      Surely Our Own Amy Shuard also deserved a mention…

      • MontyNostry

        I did once see Tinsley as Abigaille in 1978 or so (with, I **think**, Norman Bailey), but I can’t remember much about it -- my fault rather than hers. Apparently her Elektras for Welsh National Opera, with Anne Evans as Chrysothemis and US mezzo Débria Brown as Klytie, were superb.

        • MontyNostry

          Doing a little background research on Débria Brown I came across this. Have many other opera singers performed in the Rocky Horror Show?

          • armerjacquino

            Judging by the photo, she wasn’t- how can I put this- typecast as Janet…

            • MontyNostry

              Ah, but, like Tara Erraught, she overcame any deficiencies in visual verisimilitude with her artistry.

  • Feldmarschallin

    Just listening to the performance from 31.1. Finally got it to play on my computer. Now if only I could figure out how to send it in an email. The sound is quite good.

    • Cicciabella

      FM, if the file’s not bigger than 2GB, you can upload it for a week on and send an email message to the recipients who can then download it at their end. All for free.

      • Feldmarschallin

        Well listened to the first part last night and even though the sound is good you hear the breathing from the guy next to me. Usually I have a different solution for the mikes but when sitting in the Parkett there are no other options. I was going to buy the commercial release anyway.