E L E K T R A
by Richard Strauss
After the bombshell premiere of Salome December 9, 1905 in Dresden, Strauss looked for another subject to repeat his success. When he saw Hugo von Hofmannstahl's play Elektra in Berlin in 1905 he knew he had found it. The story takes place at Mycenae in antiquity based on the Sophocles version of the tragic story of Homer's legend, a woman driven to avenge the murder of her father, Agamemnon, who had been killed years before by her mother, Klytämnestra, and the latter's lover, Aegisth. When Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis, will not help, Elektra decides to do the task herself. The return of her brother Orest, who supposedly had been killed, affords her the opportunity. At Elektra's urging, Orest kills both Klytämenestra and Aegisth after which Elektra, triumphant in her victory, dances herself to death. The plot is filled with shadowy, incestuous innuendos: Elektra's love for her father, a semi-lesbian attitude towards her sister, and sibling love for Orestthe latter suggested by Strauss's erotic music for the Recognition Scene, when Elektra encounters her long-lost brother. John Simon, writing in a Metropolitan Opera News article in 1992, concluded that Elektra was "an hysterical virgin."
Hofmannstahl and Strauss collaborated amicably on Elektra, the author shortening the libretto considerably for the opera, Strauss writing his most dissonant music. This is the largest orchestra he ever used in an opera (111 players) with more than 40 woodwind/brass instruments including 8 horns (four doubling on Wagner tubas), a bass trumpet, contrabass trombone and tuba. The 24 violins and 18 violas are divided into three sections; on occasion the six violas double on violin. Strauss obviously wanted to have a mass of orchestral sound. It's reported that during initial rehearsals he shouted out to the conductor, "Louder the orchestra...I can still hear Mme. Schumann-Heink!" Apparently he changed his mind later when he advised conductors to "conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohnelfin music."
The premiere January 25, 1909 featured Annie Krull in the title role, Ernestine Schumann-Heink as Klytämnestra, Margarethe Siems as Chrysothemis, Johannes Sembach as Aegisth and Carl Perron as Orest, conducted by Ernst von Schuch. Georg Toller produced and design was by Emil Rieck. The Dresden audience was polite in their response, but Elektra quickly became the shock sensation of the operatic worldremember that Puccini's Madama Butterfly had been premiered just five years earlier.
Elektra is of supreme difficulty, perhaps the most taxing of all dramatic soprano roles. A cursory look at the score shows Elektra sings eight B-flats and four high Cs; she is on stage for most of the time during the duration of the opera (Solti's uncut version takes 108 minutes; standard cuts bring performance time to about ten minutes less). The final notes sung by Elektra as she dances herself to death, are to the text "Wer glücklich ist wie wir, dem ziemt nur eins: schweigen und tanzen!" ("There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we: to be silent and dance!"). The word "und" is a D# on the staff, "tanzen" starts with an A# above the staff, with the last syllable a low F#. However, it is seldom one hears this concluding low note, even on a recording. Some sopranos (Astrid Varnay and Ursula Schroder-Feinen) change the score and on the last note after the A# instead of singing a low F#, sing a high Ba stunning effect; the entire orchestra is about to conclude the opera with those smashing C-major chords. It is to both soprano's credit that they are able to sing this additional high B at the end of this demanding role. In addition to the Schröder-Feinen's 1977 live performance mentioned in this article she also sang the added high note in a concert performance with Lorin Maazel in January 1974 which I remember vividly from my broadcast days when the station where I worked carried weekly Cleveland Orchestra concerts. Astrid Varnay sang the added high note (brilliantly!) in her 1949 New York Philharmonic broadcast with Mitropoulos (just now issued on CD), her 1954 New York Philharmonic broadcast also with Mitropoulos (not yet on CD), and her 1964 Salzburg performance with Karajan (not quite as good), but she doesn't attempt it in her 1953 German radio performance. Yet to appear on CD is a the 1952 Met broadcast conducted by Fritz Reiner, although it is available on LP from the Met.
The role of Chrysothemis also is loaded with those high notes Strauss liked so much for sopranos, including 5 B-flats. Klytämnestra's role is mostly on the staff or just aboveafter all, the part is written for a mezzo-soprano. This tragic story does contain a rather comic exclamation, by Chrysothemis when she rushes onto the scene where her mother has emitted two bloody screams as she was being murdered, and sings, "Es must etwas geschehen sein" ("Something must have happened"). Indeed, it did!
Elektra contains no "arias" as such. Much of the opera is almost non-melodic, rather anticipating "sprechstimme," a use of the voice midway between speech and song used by Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire in 1912. Elektra's opening Monologue might be considered an "aria" as well as Chrysothemis' music in which she sings of her desire to be a mother ("Du bist es, die mit Eisenklammern mich...") Although Elektra has been recorded a number times in the past half-century (usually with small cuts), such was not the case for decades after the 1909 premiere in Dresden. When the British premiere took place the following year the Gramophone Company listed four single-sided acoustic records of scenes sung by "Miss Perceval Allen" and "Mr. Frederic Austin." Allan was heard in music of both Elektra and Chrysothemis, Austin in part of the Recognition Scene. Thila Plaichinger, who created Elektra in Berlin, made two ten-inch acoustic records of part of the Recognition Scene with Baptist Hoffmann as Orest. The first major recording was in 1947 when HMV, at the request of RCA, recorded the Recognition Scene and an abbreviated version of the finale (see Beecham review). For many collectors the first initiation to Elektra was the Cetra recording live from the 1950 Florence May Festival with Anny Konetzni, Daniza Ilitsch as the sister, Martha Mödl as Klytämnestra and Dimitri Mitropoulos conductingan exciting if inadequately-sung performance, poorly recorded, now available at budget price. Also of interest is a live concert performance (which I have not heard) of an excerpt from the Recognition Scene sung by Kirsten Flagstad in Berlin in May 1952. She never sang the entire rolehad she, that is something I'd like to have heard! Also available briefly was an early '60s recording of the Recognition Scene with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry as Orestsuperb, and considering how successful Ludwig was as the Dyer's Wife she could have sung the entire opera. It is reported that Böhm, Karajan and Leonard Bernstein unsuccessfully urged her to do sohowever she did later sing Klytämnestra with great success.
ELEKTRA ON RECORDINGS
SIR GEORGE SOLTI / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
This actually is Solti's
second recording of music from Elektra - he had recorded
excerpts with Christel Goltz for Polydor/American Decca.
This 1967 Decca recording of the complete opera offers a stunning
performance with Birgit Nilsson in her prime in one of her greatest roles.
Her singing is astonishingly secure and powerfulthe conclusion of
Elektra's confrontation with Klytämnestra is hair-raising as Nilsson like
a force of nature latches onto those high notes (an A# on the word "lebt,"
a C on the word "jauchzt" and a B flat on the word "freun!"
Regina Resnik's diabolical Klytämnestra is perfect, the two major male
roles strongly cast. The only vocal weakness is Marie Collier's
Chrysothemis which, although well sung, is rather nondescript. Solti
is in his element in this score and, with the Vienna Philharmonic in
virtuoso form, this is a remarkable set. Sonically this recording still
astoundsJohn Culshaw at his most imaginative, with a broad sound-stage
and the VPO almost overpowering the singerswhich is as it should
GIUSEPPE SINOPOLI / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
luxurious sound from the Vienna Philharmonic.
Unfortunately the performance is diminished from the beginning by
Alessandra Marc in the title role; she simply doesn't have the necessary
power in her upper register. She sounds stressed on those crucial
high notes and cannot sustain some of them. Deborah Voight would
have been a better choice for the leading role, but she is a fine
Chrysothemis. Hanna Schwarz's queen lacks the despair and venom many
others find in the role. DGG's engineering places Schwarz's
non-menacing laugh in the distance which perhaps it where it should be.
It seems like luxury casting as well to have Siegfried Jerusalem as
Aegisth and Samuel Ramey as Orest, but the latter was having a bad day
when this recording was made. Sinopoli in his own rather placid way
revels in Strauss's rich orchestration, but there's little tension and
the final crashing C-major chords sound perfunctory and over-rushed. DG's
engineers have done a spectacular job in capturing the rich sound of the
VPO, which is at its radiant best.
SIR THOMAS BEECHAM / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Throughout his career Sir Thomas Beecham championed music of Richard Strauss. He conducted the first Strauss ever performed in EnglandElektraFebruary 10, 1910 at Covent Garden. Thirty-seven years later he presented a Strauss Festival in London with his new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1946, one year earlier. Strauss, more than eighty at the time, accepted Beecham's invitation to come to the festival, where he conducted his Symphonia domestica in Royal Albert Hall, and received many honors.
The Strauss Festival programs
included two concert performances of Elektra in the BBC Concert
Hall October 24/26, 1947, both highly praised by the composer. The
BBC broadcast of Elektra has been issued on several pirate labels
but this Myto issue offers the best sound of all. Beecham's Strauss
is not as highly-charged as Reiner, Solti or Mitropoulos but it builds
to a mighty climax and his attention to detail is extraordinary. Schlüter's
Elektra is serviceable; she of course is no Nilsson or Varnay, but she
is equal to anyone singing the role today. Of keen interest here is the
Chrysothemis of Ljuba Welitsch, one of the few complete opera recordings
of the remarkable Bulgarian soprano (the others are Un ballo en
maschera, Aida, Don Giovanni, La Rondine and Salome in live
Fledermaus in the studio). She is perfect in the role; I prefer her
to Leonie Rysanek because her vivid youthful sound is an appropriate contrast
to Elektra; even though Elektra and Chrysothemis are sisters I prefer not
to have them sound too similar. This is a valuable recording for
Strauss lovers. At the same time as the BBC performances HMV made
a studio recording of the Recognition Scene and a somewhat abbreviated
version of the finale (see other Beecham listing below).
ARTUR RODZINSKI / New York Philharmonic
Orchestra (concert abridged version)
The Rose Pauly concert version
of Elektra dates
from a broadcast March
21, 1937. Born in Hungary, Pauly (1894-1975) reportedly was the most
celebrated Elektra of the '30s. On this broadcast she made her American
debut; the following year she would sing the same opera and others at the Met
for two years. She gave many first performances including Marie in the
world premiere of Berg's Wozzeck. Strauss praised her singing of his
music and rightly so based on what is heard on this broadcast. Her voice
is powerful, right on pitch and she obviously understands the score. It is
said she was outstanding histrionically and on stage must have been a dramatic
presence indeed. Charlotte Boerner, with a rather light but secure sound, is
excellent as the sister, and another Hungarian, Enid Szánthó, presents
sterling Klytämnestra. Artur Rodzinski conducts superblywhat a Strauss
conductor he was! Sound is surprisingly good considering the vintage but,
unfortunately, there are many episodes of static-like interference; those who
can tolerate this will experience a superb if truncated performance by one of
the leading Elektras of the past.
EUGEN JOCHUM / Hamburg State Orchestra
A fascinating "historic recording" from
Hamburg in 1944. Eugen
Jochum succeeded Karl Böhm as musical director of the Hamburg Opera in
1934 and remained there until the end of the war. He proves to be a
splendid conductor of Strauss operaas, of course, was his predecessor. In
title role Erna Schlüter gives a thrilling performance; she is in better
condition vocally than she in the Beecham recording three years later and here
one can understand why she was rated so highly during her time. Gusta
Hammer, a singer totally unknown to me (although I found that she participated
in an early recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion conducted by Bruno
Kittel), is outstanding, if rather laid back as Klytämnestra. Annelies
Kupper appeared often at the Hamburg Opera in the early '40s, and created the
title role in the 1952 Salzburg world premiere of Strauss's Die Liebe der
Dana. Her singing of Chrysothemis is on the same high level as the
other women principals. This is a fine performance in superb mono,
RICHARD KRAUS / West German Radio Orchestra
KARL BÖHM / Bavarian State Opera
KARL BÖHM / DRESDEN STATE ORCHESTRA
Karl Böhm's 1960 Dresden recording
is outstanding in many ways. Inge
Borkh is in top form in the title role, Jean Madeira here is a relatively sedate
Only Marianne Schech disappoints as Chrysothemis; otherwise the cast had the
luxury of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Orest and Fritz Uhl as Aegisth. This is
Böhm's first commercial recorded representation of the scoreand it is superb. Fine
orchestral playingand the early stereo recording is spacious and
KARL BÖHM / VIENNA STATE OPERA
Böhm's 1965 Vienna recording is
essential for all lovers of Elektra.
What a cast! Nilsson, Rysanek and Resnik, with Windgassen and Wächter as
the men, and all at their best. From Aegisth's death to the end of the
opera everything is at white heatand what a pleasure to hear Nilsson and
Rysanek in full glory. Among the
serving maids you'll find Gundula Janowitz, at the beginning of her career which
later (1973) would include one of the top recordings of Strauss's Four
Last Songs (with BPO/Karajan). The mono sound is excellent and
well-balanced. The set is a feast for lovers of Nilsson and Rysanekand
the generously filled disks ( 78:01 & 74:31) have intriguing bonuses. Rysanek
heard in a powerhouse performance of the Salome finale from 1974 with
Ferdinand Leitner on the podium, Nilsson in the final scene sung in Swedish in
1954 with Sixten Ehrling conducting as well as several
scenes from Acts II and III of Walküre, with Nilsson as Brünnhilde,
Rysanek as Sieglinde, including the scene where Rysanek screams (not written
in the score)
as Siegfried is killed, as well as that magnificent moment when
Sieglinde realizes she will have a son. Absolutely essential for
WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH / RAI Orchestra
WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH / Bavarian Radio Orchestra
Elektra was considered to be one
of Eva Marton's finest roles. She has
a powerhouse of a voice with remarkable volume and stamina. Unfortunately
subtlety is not part of her arsenalshe just belts it out in her own way,
impressive for sheer volume but not very pleasant to hearand not always
on pitch. Cheryl Studer is splendid as Chrysothemis, Marjana Lipovsek a
strong Klytämnestra, with the two leading men all one could wish. It must
be said that Sawallisch's love for the score is ever-apparent. He manages
to make the Bavarian RSO sound like the VPOand, as he did in the live
performance mentioned above, he makes a considerable pause (as does Richard Kraus)
second scream as Klytämnestra is murdereda terrific theater effect. EMI's
stereo sound is all one could askbut I can't help but wish that Nilsson was
in the title role instead of Marton; Sawallisch and the others deserve
Hildegard Behrens (Elektra); Nadine
Secunde (Chrysothemis); Christa Ludwig (Klytämnestra);
Ragnar Ulfung (Aegisth); Jorma Hynninen (Orest).
FRIEDEMANN LAYER / Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon National Orchestra
FRITZ REINER/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
In 1956 Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony were planning concert performances of Elektra in collaboration with RCA. When the latter refused to record the entire opera, Reiner presented a 72-minute concert version omitting all of Klytämnestra's music and RCA recorded some excerpts: Elektra's soliloquy "Allein! Weh, ganz allein," the complete Recognition Scene, and the opera's finale. Of course they missed the boatthey should have recorded the entire opera, just like Columbia's oversight in 1949 when they recorded just the final scene of Salome with Reiner and Ljuba Welitsch. We can be thankful for what we haveand it is first-rate throughout. Frances Yeend isn't an ideal Chrysothemis, but her lighter voice is a welcome contrast to Borkhand Paul Schoeffler is a superb Orest. Reiner is the real star here, a Straussian of the first orderhe makes the most of the orchestral interlude following Elektra's cry of "Orest!" in the Recognition Scene, with the CSO brass in full glory; there is no other recording quite like it. The Chicago Symphony is resplendent, and this is one of the finest examples of RCA's Living Stereo Chicago recordings.
There also is a Reiner Met broadcast
of Feb. 23, 1952 with Astrid Varnay, Walburga
Wegner (who recorded Salome in Vienna with Rudolf Moralt conducting),
Elisabeth Höngen, available in a 3 LP set from the Metropolitan Opera (MET 9)
which also contains the 1952 Salome with Welitsch/Reiner (too bad they
didn't use the 1949 performance, which is quite superior). Varnay sang
performances of Elektra at the Met in 1952. She had sung Salome three
times at the Met from 1950-1952 (as well as three Brünnhildes), returning
to the Met from 1975-1977 when she sang 8 performances of Klytämnestra and 3
Herodias. Doubtless eventually this Elektra will be issued on CD; it is
KNUD ANDERSSON/New Orleans Orchestra
Inge Borkh's live New Orleans Opera
performance of December 1966 is one of many performances of the opera she
gave in smaller opera houses; this one surely sounds provincial as the audience
applauds just about
everyone as they appear on stage, also at climactic points in the
performance (!). Surprising, as opera in New Orleans has had a distinguished
for the past century. U.S. premieres of Norma, I Puritani, Semiramide,
Les Huguenots, Le Prophète , Lucia di Lammermoor, La Favorite and La
Fille du Regiment took place in New Orleans along with Mignon, Le Cid,
Esclarmonde, Hérodiade and Le Roi d'Ys. Borkh is reliably excellent,
and Regina Resnik repeats her grim representation of Klytämenestra without the
benefit of Decca's engineering in her maniacal laughing as she learns of
Orestes' death. Amy Schuh's Chrysothemis is no match for the other two
principals. Knud Anderson, who conducted the New Orleans opera from 1964-1979,
together but little more. Stereo sound is adequate and reasonably
well-balanced. A bonus is three excerpts from Verdi's Macbeth from a New
Orleans production of November 1967 in which Borkh is superb as Lady Macbeth,
with Anton Guadagno conducting.
DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Jean Madeira, Inge
Borkh, Lisa Della Casa and conductor Dimitri Mitroupoulos
DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / New York Philharmonic Orchestra
DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / FLORENCE MAY FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA
This live performance from the 1950 Florence May Festival was available decades ago on Cetra LPs and for many listeners was their introduction to the opera. The role of Elektra is beyond Anny Konetzni; she lunges at high notes, missing most and not even attempting some. Her final note is a pathetic, desperate cry. Ilitsch's lighter voice might seem appropriate for the role of Chrysothemis, but she is edgy and skimps on note values. The two men are excellent as is the always dependable Mödl. Mitropoulos, who the year before had presented a concert performance with the New York Philharmonic, is his usual dynamic self drawing impassioned playing from the Italian orchestra. The transfer on Warner Classics is a vast improvement over the Cetra LP issue. The recording also briefly was available on a German label, Hommage GmbH Musikproduktion und Verlag, set 7001841. The Warner Classics issue listed above is available only in Europe as of this writing.
CARLOS KLEIBER / WÜRTTEMBURG
STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA
A promisingbut frustratingissue.
Much in demand in the conducting world, Carlos Kleiber conducts only when
like it and refuses many offers. One
can only wonder why he accepted this engagement if he had any idea who was going
singing. Ingrid Steger, who started her career in the mid-'60's in Eastern
Germany is, according to CD notes, "a much sought-after exponent of
Elektra," and Spanish-born Enriqueta Tarres who in 1964 became a member
the Hamburg Opera, are totally inadequate. I cannot imagine what Kleiber,
a stickler for perfection, must have thought during rehearsals and this
performance. From a vocal standpoint the two leading sopranos are a
travesty, almost comical in their ineptness rather reminding me of the fiasco
in Citizen Kane when Susan Alexander Kane, at the insistence of her husband,
appears in an aria from Salammbó composed, like all music for the film, by
Bernard Herrmann. Martha Mödl is balm for the
ears, a reliable artist in fine form. Kleiber's interpretation is in the
Mitropoulos/Reiner tradition but this recording has minimal interest vocally.
The sound is adequate to convey the performance.
In the mid-'30s Herbert von Karajan, then at the beginning of his remarkable career, led a performance of Elektra. Strauss was present and it is said that at the conclusion the composer leaped to his feet and shouted "Bravo!" Elektra was an opera Karajan occasionally conducted in his earlier years finally presenting it at the Salzburg Festival in 1964/65. Karajan had been appointed artistic director of the Salzburg Festival in 1957it was at his wish the Grosse Festspielhaus was builtand he dominated the European musical scene for more than three decades. During this time he presented his own conception of operas including Il trovatore, Don Carlos, Otello, Carmen, Boris Godunov, Der Rosenkavalier, Salome and the complete Ring all of which he recorded usually prior to the Salzburg presentations. For whatever reason, Karajan elected not to record Elektra commercially; he told Astrid Varney it caused him "much emotional strain." For that reason this document is important as it shows the egocentric conductor in an opera not available otherwise in his interpretation. The performance is impressive in its own way but Karajan's often leisurely tempi make great demands on the singers. Varnay starts out tenuously improving considerably after the duet with Chrysothemis; this is not one of her best performancesalthough she does add that extra high B at the end. Hildegard Hillebrecht's Chrysothemis is fine as is veteran Martha Mödl's queen. The Austrian Radio's mono sound is adequate; voices can always be heard and there is an appropriate sense of perspective. For whatever reason, timpani are very present covering up some orchestral detail.
DANIEL BARENBOIM / BERLIN STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA
The star of this recording is Waltraud
Meier who obviously relishes her
return to mezzo repertory. Her singing of Klytämnestra is among the best
on recordings. Deborah Polaski's Elektra is striking in its boldness, but
obviously she is stressed and edgy in this difficult role. Alessandra Marc's
is tenuous and she seems to have little vocal reserve. For certain she is
better as the sister than she in the title role in Sinopoli's recording made
the same year. The two men are excellent. Barenboim's reading is
rather understated, rather as if he were conducting Rosenkavalier instead
composer's bloodiest, most dissonant opera. Teldec's engineering is first-rate.
KARL BÖHM / MUNICH
NATIONAL THEATER ORCHESTRA
This is a superb performance
of enormous interest from July 17, 1977 in Munich
with Böhm conducting and Ursula Schröder-Feinen in the title role. Her voice
is quite similar to Birgit Nilsson's, secure in pitch and voluminous. She is
ideal for Elektra, a role she sang three times at
the Met in 1976 (she also sang 6 performances of the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau
Ohne Schatten in 1978, 4 Salomes in 1973 and 2 Siegfried Brünnhildes
1972). As mentioned above, she and Astrid Varnay are the only sopranos
I know of who make the role more difficult
by adding a high B at the finale. Here we also
have Rysanek in resplendent voice in one of her best roles, and Varnay in fine
form after the
switch from the title role to the queen. Hopf
and Adam are perfect in their roles and again Böhm shows he is master of this
music. Unfortunately, a solo clarinet jumps the gun just before one of the
loud closing chords. Varnay also sang the queen in the 1981
Böhm video production, made shortly before his death, which featured
Rysanek in her only Elektra, with Caterina Ligendza as Chrysothemis. Rysanek
sang the title role at the insistence of Böhm; this was released on DVD in 2005
(see REVIEW). It was a memorable performance if only for Rysanek's Elektra and
The two CDs (60:30 and 68:14) offer a bonus in the form of nearly a
half-hour of excerpts from Die Frau Ohne Schatten from a July 26, 1975
performance focusing on Schröder-Feinen's Dyer's Wife; others in the cast are
James King, Leonie Rysanek and Ruth Hesse with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted
by Karl Böhm.
SIR THOMAS BEECHAM / ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
This is the recording
RCA requested from HMV in October 1947 when Beecham and his forces gave two
BBC performances (see story above). This recording was my first exposure
to ElektraI once owned the original four 78's as well as
LP issue (LCT 1135). The recording contains the Recognition Scene and a
version of the finale. None of Klytämnestra's music is includedbut
course we hear the two blood-curdling screams as she is murdered, presumably
done by Elisabeth Höngen who sang the role in the BBC performances. Prime
interest on this CD is about a half-hour of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (Prelude
and final scene) with Maria Cebotari as Ariadne, also was presented at the 1947
Strauss festival, reason enough to have this CD.
DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Mitropoulos gave this New York Philharmonic concert performance of Elektra with Astrid Varnay, Irene Jessner, Elena Nikolaidi, Frederick Jagel and Herbert Janssen, oddly presented on Christmas Day 1949. Olin Downes wrote of this, "it must be recorded as one of the legendary musical events in the history of the city." It is magnificent although with many cuts. The audience applauds after Klytämnestra's entrance which ends with a loud chordthe reason being that there was an intermission during the broadcast and that's where it took place. Varnay is a bit slow to warm up but by the Recognition Scene is in top formand on the final notes she does sing a resoundingand long-heldhigh "B"absolutely stunning! This is the only documented Klytämnestra of Greek soprano Elena Nikolaidioffering a strong characterization with her rich, flexible voice, although after the confrontation with Elektra there is no maniacal laughter. Jessner is the only principal not quite up to highest standards. This is a memorable performance finally issued on CD in a splendid transfer, filled out with arias of Weber, Wagner, Mascagni, Massenet, Puccini and Verdi featuring Varnay. Broadcast commentary for Elektra is included, taking us back to a memorable afternoon more than a half-century ago.
Since writing the above I have received another recording of Elektra, a live recording from Teatro La Fenice dating from December 1971 with Inge Borkh, Regina Resnik, Teresa Kubiak as Chrysothemis and Kari Nurmela as Orests, with Fritz Rieger conducting. This is the last Borkh recording of the role, and her voice shows definite signs of wear; Resnik is still her usual powerful self, the remainder of the cast reasonably good. The sound, in spite of "20 Bit High Definition Remastering" is often distorted. The set, on Mondo Musica (MFOH 10503), seems to be discontinued.
Another Elektra was
issued mid-2006, a live 1958 Berlin performance conducted by Lovro von Matacic,
with Sigrid Ekkehard in the title role, Margarete Klose as the Queen, and
Hedwig Müller-Bütow as Chrysothemis. It is not a major addition
to the Elektra discography (see REVIEW).
Which recording to own? Surely the Solti/Nilsson is essential in spite of a Chrysothemis not up to the standard of the two other prima donnas, with Decca's sonics standing up to today's best. For a live performance, the 1965 Vienna performance with Böhm, Nilsson, Rysanek and Resnik is unbeatable. For a Mitropoulos recording, I'd choose the 1957 Salzburg performance. I wouldn't want to be without the Beecham live recording simply because of the Chrysothemis of Ljuba Welitsch.
R.E.B. (April 2002)