Elektra DVD CoverRichard Strauss’s brilliantly disturbing Elektra was first performed at the Dresden State Opera in 1909, and arrived in America in 1910 at the Manhattan Opera House.  A second American premiere, this time in the original German, was in Philadelphia in 1931 with – and this will kill you – Nelson Eddy as Orestes. Along with Salome it represents Strauss at his most dissonant and chromatic. After Elektra, the composer would retreat to a more tonal, neo-romantic compositional style that while still harmonically complex, would never push the envelope like Elektra.

This 1994 Metropolitan Opera performance has never been commercially available and is being released on DVD as part of James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met – DVD Box Set. After watching this remarkable performance, one can only wonder why it has not been available before now! 

From her opening “Allein, Weh ganz allein!” to her final exhausted collapse the great Hildegard Behrens dominates this performance in a way few singers dare. And let’s just get this out of the way now, Behrens was a “kunst” diva, not a “stimm” diva. (See Demented: The World of the Opera Diva by Ethan Mordden.) Though she was capable of great vocal beauty and lyricism, particularly in her incredibly resonant upper resister, she was never afraid to use harsh sounds to express a character’s emotional distress. At the time of this telecast Behrens was the world’s preeminent German dramatic soprano and she brings all of her fierce intelligence, vocal resources and remarkable stagecraft to bear. Fortunately for us the camera and microphone were there to catch every last minute.

Wide of girth and radiant of voice Deborah Voigt is glorious as Chrysothemis, the sister trapped with Elektra in this nightmare or murder, vengeance and incipient madness. Considering the out of tune, over bright, driven sound she now employs, it is a shock to hear just how warm and beautiful her voice once was.

The camera does not do the over-the-top Klytämnestra of Brigitte Fassbänder any favors. Even in a theater the size of the Met it was, to put it mildly, a gigantic performance given when the German mezzo’s vocal resources were not what they once were. On video it veers perilously close to caricature and it is only through her fierce—and I mean fierce—commitment to every note, word, move and gesture that she ultimately makes it work.

As the brother returning to exact vengeance for his father’s murder, Donald McIntyre was a little old in 1994 to play Orestes, but he makes up for it with his still-impressive vocalism and committed acting. The great James King makes a brief appearance as Aegistheus, the man who helped murder Elektra’s father.

I was even impressed by the maids in the production. In the treacherously difficult opening scene every part is strongly sung with clearly defined characters and rock solid musical preparation. Mezzo Jane Shaulis is particularly good.

The production by Otto Schenk is in most ways standard fare – lots of collapsed statuary, cracked stone walls, and uneven steps – but it serves the action well and provides lots of playing areas that are fully exploited by both Schenk and lighting designer Gil Wechsler. (I particularly liked the half-seen torches inside the castle as Klytämnestra and her coterie make their way out to confront Elektra.)

Last but not least is the conductor whose career is being celebrated by this release. Seldom have I found Maestro Levine more persuasive than he is here. Elektra is one of the great orchestral scores and is massive in both size and complexity. The Maestro is in complete control of his forces, unleashing a fury of sound and emotion that never ceases to amaze.