Two performances of Strauss's masterpiece that, considering performers involved, for various reasons turn out to be disappointing. The Metropolitan Opera performance was a Saturday broadcast matinee filmed at the same time, February 16, 1980. Of major interest here is participation of Birgit Nilsson and Leonie Rysanek, both specialists in their roles as the two very different sisters. Rysanek is superb and it is good to have video documentation of one of her great performances, but Nilsson was not at her best. On occasion her pitch is suspect, her power not at its usual intense level—after all, she had been singing the big Wagner and Strauss roles for a quarter-century. Dramatically she is superb, brilliantly conveying Elektra's confused sexuality related both to her brother, Orest, and her sister, Chrysothemis. Mignon Dunn, a mainstay of the Met roster for lower dramatic soprano roles, is convincing as Klytämnestra, Donald McIntyre a rather insecure Orest. The Met Orchestra plays very well under James Levine's assured direction. The stereo sound quality is disappointing, not equal to the best of Met videos. Voices sometimes are too distant, orchestral sound surprisingly unresonant for the venue.
Abbado's Elektra dates from a live Vienna State Opera performance of 1989. Musically it is quite strong. Eva Marton, a blockbuster soprano who specializes in the big Strauss roles, is in relatively good vocal condition. Subtelty isn't part of her singing, but she manages the notes respectably and is quite dramatic interpretively. Cheryl Studer negotiates Chrysothemis effectively, Brigitte Fassbaender is an imperious Queen, Franz Grundheber is more effective visually than vocally as Orest. James King, at the twilight of his distinguished career when he was the Emperor in numerous performances of Die Frau ohne Schatten, is just fine as the doomed Aegisth. Claudio Abbado turns out to be a superb Straussian and, of course, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is an old hand in this repertory. The production, by Herbert Graf, with Reto Nickler as stage manager and lighting by Robert Stangl, is one that I do not wish to experience again. For whatever reason, there are some ropes hanging from the ceiling at stage right; their significance is unclear, but the singers are required to hang onto them, twist them and otherwise deal with them throughout the performance. Principal women characters all wear white chalk makeup and caps that make them look bald. Appropriately, the general setting is dark, but usually so dark it's hard to see what's going on. Elektra seems to be wearing some kind of tattered military uniform. Chrysathemis's red inner blouse is a welcome spot of color on this foreboding scene. Closeups of the singers in their clown makeup—and there are many—are not flattering. Extensive curtain calls are included and, appropriately, there are boos for the non-musical participants in this ill-advised concept of Strauss's powerful opera. It's difficult to understand why this production was filmed. Sonically this DVD is reasonably effective, but this DVD for reasons stated above hardly represents the power and grandeur of Strauss's masterpiece.
R.E.B. (February 2004)