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Opera on DVD: Elektra

Ob ich nicht höre? ob ich die
Musik nicht höre? sie kommt doch aus mir.
-- Elektra

Available at Amazon:
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Richard Strauss, Elektra, Eva Marton, Cheryl Studer, Brigitte Fassbänder, James King (released on October 30, 2001)
Richard Strauss's Elektra (1909) has one of the great opening measures in operatic history. With a blare of brass (the same notes that will be heard again at the moment of Elektra's death) that gradually recedes to reveal the bleat of a bass clarinet, the audience is launched into the first scene, with the maidservants gossiping about Elektra's bizarre, enraged behavior. In this 1989 production at the Vienna State Opera, directed by Harry Kupfer, that shocking opening is underscored by the staging: the scene is wrapped in a black shroud-like curtain, ripped away at the opening brass shriek. The casting reunites two of the singers in the last Strauss DVD I reviewed, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Hungarian soprano Éva Marton in the title role and Michigan-born soprano Cheryl Studer as Chrysothemis, both of them for the first time in their respective roles.

Elektra is the twin of Salome, which Strauss had just completed when he began work on Elektra. The composer had misgivings initially about taking on the subject (both heroines dance, after all, although Elektra wisely keeps her clothes on), but he was very impressed by the source, a play by his future librettist and collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal, because he thought the tone and story too close to Salome. The Greek original, Electra by Sophocles, is no walk in the park. The House of Atreus was not a happy place for a child. Just ask Iphigenia.

Éva Marton as Elektra, Vienna State OperaMarton's Elektra is creepy, fed on bitter hatred for so long, her only hope that of seeing her dead father's ghost, expressed in that devastating opening soliloquy ("Agamemnon! Agamemnon! Wo bist du, Vater?"), which the libretto instructs her to sing gegen den Boden (on the ground). In this production, she stands on what I think is Agamemnon's tomb, clutching two ropes. Agamemnon's ghost appears only in the orchestra, in fanfares of royal brass topped by a brain-splitting trumpet. Studer's Chrysothemis flits from place to place in fear, a physical restlessness that her slightly nervous vibrato (a minor criticism of a formidable voice) suits quite well. Taking up a psychological theme also present in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Chrysothemis longs to break free of the palace, to marry someone, even a peasant, and have children. As she sings that line in this production, she rips open her robe to reveal blood-red undergarments. Hello, Sigmund Freud (150 years old this year)!

Kupfer's staging is expressionistic, with the palace at Mycenae resembling a fascist state factory, with what is eventually revealed as a monolithic statue of Agamemnon crumbled to ruins. The lighting is so sparse that it sometimes leaves the stage too dark to be able to see what is happening. The faces of the singers, especially Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra, are distorted by white face paint and heavy make-up. Marton wallows on the floor and tromps around the stage like an asylum inmate; Klytämnestra, a possessed Brigitte Fassbänder, is carried on a litter and already has the visage of a ghost. Her appearance, garish face makeup exaggerating her eyebrows, is close to a literal rendering of the libretto's instructions, and her performance is part wail and part singing.

Elektra on Ionarts:

Charles T. Downey, Elektra at Tanglewood (August 23, 2006)

Jens F. Laurson, Birgit Nilsson's Elektra (January 15, 2006)

Charles T. Downey, Elektra in Paris (June 22, 2005)
There are men in this opera, too, and there is good singing to be heard from Franz Grundheber (Orest) and James King (Aegisth). Claudio Abbado's conducting is masterful, unleashing magisterial power from the Vienna Philharmonic, notably at the moment when Elektra finally recognizes Orest, as her shriek ("Orest!") is answered by a tidal swell from the orchestra pit as the siblings embrace. What follows is one of the few truly lovely moments in the opera ("Orest! Orest! Orest!"), the closest thing to a love aria in Elektra. Strauss was a sadist, asking a soprano to sing something this lyrical after making her shriek in hysteria for 90 minutes. The ending of the opera, imbued with a mixture of joy and horror, is one of the most remarkable moments in the genre. Marton took her first bow, looking like she was about to collapse from exhaustion, and then struggled to hold back tears as she received a huge ovation later, all well deserved.

One minor drawback is the English subtitles, which appear to be using a translation from the Elizabethan period ("so will an hundred throats of victims / rain their life-blood on thy tomb / [...] Therefore must their blood descend to do thee homage meet / And we, thy son Orestes and thy daughters twain"). However, that is hardly a reason not to buy this DVD, which I may well do now after watching it several times, or just request it from Netflix.

Image Entertainment ID9303RADVD

1 comment:

jfl said...

Karl Boehm's last recording is riveting, too - with Varnay as Klytemnestra and Resinek as Elektra. (FDF is Orest.) It's bloody and carnal and sexy and cruel and dark... and just about the only opera-film that is "on location" that I really like. (I.e. none of that Ponelle-stuff which I can't stand.)