Elektra cannot forget. In Richard Strauss’ opera that’s not her virtue, that’s her—ultimately fatal—flaw. She is not a heroine for bearing a sick grudge against her mother and stepfather that eats away at her, she is pitied for it. Similarly, her brother Orest’s assumption of power is not redemption-through-restoration, it is resumption of the same regimen of kill-and-be-killed that ruled at any given point before. There are directors who underline this with Orest giving the ‘Roman’ salute upon his enthronement. Not exactly subtle, but perfectly appropriate.
Elektra might have gotten the opera named after her, but that doesn’t mean we are meant to feel for her. Strauss was pragmatic: Whereas Wagner had the indistinguishable urge to heap his operatic heroes up in a pile of corpses by the final act, Strauss appreciated the considerable advantages of surviving. “Eh’ ich sterbe will ich auch leben!” (Before I die, I want to live) says Elektra’s sane and practical sister Chrysothemis. Strauss is on her side. She survives.
The opera does not so much condemn mother Clytemnestra and her moral failings, or even her murder, as much as it does her children’s inability to let go and live. Elektra, in short, is a peculiar bitch.
Linda Watson, filling in for Katarina Dalayman, has a particular gift for bringing out that side of Elektra. And in that sense Watson, who had never sung this rôle before this run of performances (first on stage in Baden-Baden, now performed in concert in Munich), was perfectly cast. Her performance with the Munich Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann was impressive in that emotionally un-involving, distant way that is her involuntary trademark.
Albert Dohmen’s Orest was articulated with taut flexibility and extraordinarily melodic low notes. Jane Henschel’s Clytemnestra exuded a lifetime of stage-wisdom, and Chrysothemis (Manuela Uhl) managed admirably, looking even better than she sounded. How René Kollo performed as Aegisth no one really cared about, because from the moment of Elektra’s recognition of Orest at the very latest, all that mattered was the orchestra and what Thieleman coaxed out of it. (When Aegisth cries out “does no one hear me?”, no one did actually hear Kollo because the orchestra had so fallen in love with the music that struggling tenors were their least concern.)
This is goose-bumps music already—Strauss way of saying “I don’t care if you can play it, or sing it. This is it, I am Richard Strauss. Deal.” But Thielemann conducted it just like that, too, making for the most shattering, devastating, frenetic climaxes full of relentless, rapturously violent music—and yet it was played with such loving abandon that it sounded like there was more Rosenkavalier in Elektra than ever before. Thielemann, who owns the secret to the invisible fast-forward button (no longueurs with him), celebrated the many big moments in this opera with such unbridled grandeur that the experience became nothing short of entrancing. Hearing an incredible wealth of details and colors thanks to the orchestra being on stage—not muffled by a pit—further added to that experience, even if the singers might have been less happy about it.
Solti / WPh / Nilsson, Resnik, Krause, Collier et al.
Mitropoulos / WPh / Borkh , Madeira, Böhme, Della Casa et al.