E L E K T R A
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, Klyt”mnestra, 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 Orest—the 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 Mendelssohn—elfin 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. Schuch (1846-1914) worked closely with Strauss as director of the Dresden Opera conducting premieres of Feuersnot (1901), Salome (1905), Elektra (1909), and Der Rosenkavalier (1911). 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 world—remember that Puccini's Madama Butterfly had been premiered just five years earlier.




Ernestine Schumann-Heink as Klytämnestra at the January 25, 1909 Dresden
premiere of Elektra, looking down on Annie Krull as Elektra


Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Annie Krull

Another view of Klytämnestra and Elektra

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 B—a 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 above—after 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 conducting—an 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 role—had 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 Orest—superb, 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 so—however she did later sing Klytämnestra with great success.

E L E K T R A ON RECORDINGS


Nilsson/Solti, 1967

Nilsson/Böhm, 1965

Nilsson/Sawallisch, 1971

SIR GEORGE SOLTI / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra); Marie Collier (Chrysothemis); Regina Resnik (Klytämnestra); Gerhard Stolze (Aegisth); Tom Krause (Orest)
LONDON 417 345 (2 CDs) (recorded 1967)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

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 powerful—the 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 astounds—John Culshaw at his most imaginative, with a broad sound-stage and the VPO almost overpowering the singers—which is as it should be.

KARL BÖHM / Vienna State Opera
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Regina Resnik (Klytämnestra); Wolfgang Windgassen (Aegisth); Eberhard Waechter (Orest)
STANDING ROOM ONLY SRO 833 (2 CDs) (rec. live 1965)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 heat—and 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 Rysanek—and the generously filled disks ( 78:01 & 74:31) have intriguing bonuses. Rysanek is 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 Strauss/Wagner lovers.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH / RAI Orchestra
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra); Ingrid Bjoner (Chrysothemis); Viorica Cortez (Klytämnestra); Timo Callio (Aegisth); Thomas Stewart (Orest).
OPERA D'ORO OPD 1300 (2 CDs) (rec. live July 8, 1971)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


A magnificent performance with Nilsson at her best. Here she proves that the almost superhuman, forceful singing she did in the Decca Solti recording four years earlier can also be done in a live performance without amplification. Right from the start she is stunning—and the supporting cast is first-rate.  Viorica Cortez' Klytämnestra is outstanding—she actually sings all the notes, and Ingrid Bjoner is a perfect foil for Nilsson. Thomas Stewart's big sound is imposing as Orest—one really gets the impression he can do the deadly deed. Sawallisch is as impressive here as he is in his complete recording (see below) with the Italian radio orchestra playing beyond their capacity. Reproduction is superb mono.  Packaging is bare, track identification approximate—but the price is budget. 



Goltz/Böhm, 1955

Schröder/Feinen/Böhm, 1975

Varnay/Karajan, 1964

Behrens/Ozawa, 1988

KARL BÖHM / Bavarian State Opera Orchestra
Christel Goltz (Elektra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Jean Madeira (Klytämnestra); Franz Klarwein (Aegisth); Hermann Uhde (Orest).
GOLDEN MELODRAM GM 30049 (2 CDs) (rec. live Aug. 26, 1955)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


Goltz was one of the leading Elektras of the '50s and one of Böhm's favorite singers of the role. This performance finds the conductor more leisurely than usual in the first third of the opera. Goltz sang more than 100 performances either in Vienna or Munich during that period. She never had a particularly attractive voice, but it was of remarkable volume for such a slight woman. She begins unsteady and, unfortunately, doesn't improve much. No question she must have been exciting to watch. This is perhaps Madeira's finest singing of Klytämnestra; I hope she didn't do the blood-curdling screams in this recording; it might have damaged her voice! The real jewel of this performance is Rysanek's Chrysothemis, caught early in her career (two years after the Kraus-conducted performance above) and sung with full-bodied gusto—it is thrilling indeed. The sound is remarkable clear for its age, and there are many stage sounds that add to the excitement. Goltz (b.1912) was a dancer before she became a singer (she was "discovered" by Böhm ). She had a trim, slight figure; her performances were always active physically as evidenced by the many stage sounds clearly heard. It is said that her " Dance of the Seven Veils" in Salome was carefully choreographed and highly believable. When performing Salome she would leap over Narraboth's dead body after he killed himself. Let us hope, for the sake of Narraboths of the world, that other less lithe sopranos don't attempt this! Some may wish to have this recording for Rysanek's early Chrysothemis.

KARL BÖHM / MUNICH NATIONAL THEATER ORCHESTRA
Ursula Schröder-Feinen (Elektra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Astrid Varnay (Klytämnestra); Hans Hopf (Aegisth); Theo Adam (Orest)
BELLA VOCE BLV 107.245 (2 CDs) (recorded July 17, 1977 in Munich)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 in 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 Böhm's conducting. 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 Salzburg 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.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN / VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Astrid Varnay (Elektra); Hildegard Hillebrecht (Chrysothemis); Martha Mödl (Klytämnestra); James King (Aegisth); Eberhard Waechter (Orest)
ORFEO C 298 922 1 (2 CDs) (rec. live Salzburg Festival August 17, 1964
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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!"—it was at his wish the Grosse Festspielhaus was built—and 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 performances—although 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.

SEIJI OZAWA / Boston Symphony Orchestra
Hildegard Behrens (Elektra); Nadine Secunde (Chrysothemis); Christa Ludwig (Klytämnestra); Ragnar Ulfung (Aegisth); Jorma Hynninen (Orest).
PHILIPS 422 574 (2 CDs) (rec. live 1988) (reissued on Philips Duo - 464 985)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


This concert performance with the Boston Symphony is excellent in many ways. Hildegard Behrens is superb, right-on for those high notes, and I like the way she slides off the final A# - an appropriately maniacal effect. Throughout her characterization is strong, the drama intense. Christa Ludwig is in the same class (I wonder what the audiences thought in the concert performance when Ludwig does that series of hysterical laughs—and the screams as she is murdered?). Unfortunately Nadine Secunde's Chrysothemis isn't up to her associates' standard. The men are fine, and the Boston Symphony produces beautiful sounds. Ozawa doesn't generate much excitement (which can also be said of his slack recording of Salome)—there is little of the demonic drive of many other conductors, particularly Solti, Böhm, Reiner and Mitropoulos. Admirers of Behrens and Ludwig surely will wish to have this recording.



Jean Madeira, Inge Borkh, Lisa Della Casa and conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos
after a performance of Elektra in Salzburg in 1957


Borkh/Mitropoulos, 1958

Konetzni/Mitropoulos, 1951

Varnay/Mitropoulos, 1949


Borkh,/Mitropoulos, 1957


DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Frances Yeend (Chrysothemis); Blanche Thebom (Klytämnestra); David Lloyd (Aegisth); Giorgio Tozzi (Orest).
ARKADIA CDMP 459-3 (3 CDs) (rec. live March 6, 1958) (also contains complete Salome with Borkh/Vinay/Thebom/Harrell/Mitropoulos from the Metropolitan Opera Feb. 2, 1958, and Salome, from the Dance to the conclusion, with Christel Goltz/Mitropoulos/Metropolitan Opera Jan. 8, 1955)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


Superb! Both Inge Borkh and Frances Yeend had sung in a 1956 concert performance of Elektra with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, and at that time recorded excerpts from it with brilliant success (see above). Here are the same singers two years later in this somewhat abridged concert version, both in top form. And here we have the magnificent and carefully sung Klytämnestra of Blanche Thebom (misspelled "Thebon" in the notes), one of the most tasteful singers of her time, whose artistry has been unjustly neglected by recording companies. Mitropoulos again shows that he is master of this music, and the super-clear analog broadcast sound captures the performance vividly. As listed above, the 3 CD set also contains an excellent Met Salome with Borkh and Thebom and the conclusion of Salome in a 1955 Met broadcast of the same opera with Christel Goltz, Thebom as Herodias, all conducted by Mitropoulos. This is an essential set for all Strauss lovers.

DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / FLORENCE MAY FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA
Anny Konetzni (Elektra); Danitza Ilitsch (Chrysothemis); Martha Mödl (Klytämnestra); Hans Braun (Aegisth); Franz Klarwein (Orest)
WARNER CLASSICS 43560 (2 CDs) (rec. live 1951)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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.

DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Astrid Varnay (Elektra); Irene Jessner (Chrysothemis); Elena Nicolaidi (Klytämnestra); Frederick Jagel (Aegisth); Herbert Janssen (Orest)
GUILD GHCD 2213/4 (2 CDs) TT: 71:59 & 77:48 (live 1949)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 chord—the 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 form—and on the final notes she does sing a resounding—and long-held—high "B"—absolutely stunning! This is the only documented Klytämnestra of Greek soprano Elena Nikolaidi—offering 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.

DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Lisa della Casa (Chrysothemis); Jean Madeira (Klytämnestra); Max Lorenz (Aegisth); Kurt B­hme (Orest)
ORFEO C 456 972 1 (Salzburg Festival August 7, 1957)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


A magnificent performance that took place about a year after the conductor's New York performance with Varnay. It boasts Lisa della Casa's elegant (and only) Chrysothemis on disk; Borkh and Madeira are known factors and in their prime with strong support from the male contingent. A demonic mood pervades thanks to the brilliant leadership of Mitropoulos. It's rather surprising that he was permitted to conduct this performance as this was the first year (1957) that the Salzburg Festival was under the artistic direction of Herbert von Karajan; one would think he would have claimed Elektra for himself, but he did direct it in Salzburg in 1964 (see below). CD notes give a rapturous report of the Mitropoulos performance ("I do not believe there is a present a second conductor who is capable of drawing from the score of Elektra such a quantity of excitement and breathtaking tension and who does this—from memory!—with so calm, almost relaxed a security and so much feeling for the beauty of the orchestral sound...").  Notes also state the director, Herbert Graf, hired an actress just for Klytämnestra's two screams—and she did her job to bloody perfection. Among the five serving maids you'll find a very young Marilyn Horne and Sieglinde Wagner. The mono sound from the Austrian Radio is fine; this is another superb Elektra.

 



Schlüter/Beecham, 1947

Schlüter/Beecham, 1947

Pauly/Rodzinski, 1937

Lammers/Kempe, 1958

SIR THOMAS BEECHAM / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Erna Schlüter (Elektra); Ljuba Welitsch (Chrysothemis); Elisabeth Höngen (Klytämnestra); Walter Widdop (Aegisth); Paul Schoffler (Orest) (rec. live London Oct.1947)
WAGNER: Excerpts from Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Tristan und Isolde sung by Erna Schlüter.
MYTO MCD 946.117 (2 CDs)

BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

Throughout his career Sir Thomas Beecham championed music of Richard Strauss. He conducted the first Strauss ever performed in England—Elektra—February 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. 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, all in live recordings, Die 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).

SIR THOMAS BEECHAM / ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Erna Schlüter (Elektra); Ljuba Welitsch (Chrysothemis); Walter Widdop (Aegisth); Paul Schoffler (Orest)
PREISER 90341 TT: 68:00 (recorded Oct. 1947)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 Elektra—I once owned the original four 78's as well as the RCA LP issue (LCT 1135). The recording contains the Recognition Scene and a truncated version of the finale. None of Klytämnestra's music is included—but of 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. Can you imagine being present at a recording for the sole purpose of providing two blood-curdling screams? 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 presented at the 1947 Strauss festival, reason enough to have this CD.

ARTUR RODZINSKI / New York Philharmonic Orchestra (concert abridged version)
Rose Pauly (Elektra); Charlotte Boerner (Chrysothemis); Enid Szánthó (Klytämnestra); Frederick Jagel (Aegisth); Julius Huehn (Orest)
EKLIPSE EKRCD 17 (1 CD) (rec. Mar. 21, 1937)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 a sterling Klytämnestra. Artur Rodzinski conducts superbly—what 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.

RUDOLF KEMPE / ROYAL OPERA HOUSE ORCHESTRA
Gerda Lammers (Elektra); Hedwig Müller-Bütow (Chrysothemis); Georgina von Malinkovic (Klytämnestra); Otakar Kraus (Orest); David Kelly (Oreste); Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE ROHS 004 (2 CDs) TT: 54:21 & 61:46 (live 1958)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

Elektra, recorded live in London's Royal Opera House May 29, 1958, receives a remarkable performance. German soprano Gerda Lammers stepped in a week before the performance to replace Christel Goltz and scored a huge triumph. She has total command of this demanding role, and it's surprising her career didn't develop further. The entire cast is outstanding, but there's no question that a major factor is the magnificent conducting of Rudolf Kempe, already recognized as a Strauss specialist, some years before he would record all of the composer's orchestral music for EMI. This is a monophonic recording, but the sound is well-balanced and satisfying. A complete libretto in German and English is included. The 14-minute "Lord Harewood in Conversation" is a dubious bonus.


Rose Pauly

Birgit Nilsson



Borkh/Andersson, 1966

Steger/Kleiber, 1971

Marc/Sinopoli, 1995

Ekkehard/Matacic, 1957

KNUD ANDERSSON/New Orleans Orchestra
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Andrey Schuh (Chrysothemis); Regina Resnik (Klytämnestra); Alan Crofoot (Aegisth); Benjamin Rayson (Orest)
VAI AUDIO VAIA 1170 (rec. Dec. 1966)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


Inge Borkh's live New Orleans Opera performance of December 1966 is one of manysheof 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 history 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, holds things 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.

CARLOS KLEIBER / WÜRTTEMBURG STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA
Ingrid Steger (Elektra); Enriqueta Tarres (Chrysothemis); Martha Mödl (Klytämnestra); Wolfgang Windgassen (Aegisth); William Wildermann (Orest)
CONNOISSEUR GM 6.0011 (2 CDs) (rec. live Stuttgart June 17, 1971)

A promising—but frustrating—issue. Much in demand in the conducting world, Carlos Kleiber appears only when he feels like it and refuses most offers. One can only wonder why he accepted this Stuttgart engagement if he had any idea who was going to be 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 of 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, attempts to sing an aria from Salammbó (composed by Bernard Hermann).. By commparison, Martha Mödl is balm for the ears, a reliable artist in reasonable form. Kleiber's interpretation is in the Mitropoulos/Reiner tradition but this recording has minimal interest vocally. Tragic! The sound is adequate to convey the performance. However, there hope for fans f Carlos Kleiber—a pirate live 1977 London recording with Birgit Nilsson and Gwyneth Jones (both at their best) as the two sters. It is stunning, obviously recorded from the audience, butaudio that does justice to the incandescent performance.

GIUSEPPE SINOPOLI / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Alessandra Marc (Elektra); Deborah Voigt (Chrysothemis); Hanna Schwarz (Klytämnestra); Siegfried Jerusalem (Aegisth); Samuel Ramey (Orest)
DEUTSCHE GRAMOPHON 453 429 (2 CDs) (rec. Sept. 1995)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

Luxurious packaging—and 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.

LOVRO VON MATACIC / BERLIN STATE OPERA
Sugrid Ekkehard (Elektra); Margarete Klose (Klytämnestra); Hedwig Müller-Bütow (Chrysothemis); Günter Treptow (Aegisth); Gerhard Niese (Orest).
GEMA SSS0049 (2 CDs) TT: 52:37 & 74:40
(live 1957)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

This is a live performance from Staatsoper under den Linden October 3, 1957. Condutor Lovro von Matacic is excellent, but the cast disappoints. Few have heard of Sigrid Ekkehard, and for good reason. Volume is her biggest asset, which also could be said of the two other female singers. The remainder of the cast is also weak, the recorded sound is poorly balanced and bass heavy. The set also includes a fine performances of Strauss's Death and Transfiguration from a concert a year later. Producer of this ill-advised set was not very careful—some of the tracks of Elektra are not in the correct order, and the symphonic poem is not track 18, as listed, but is heard during the opera(!!). An embarrasing issue for the record industry, and one surely to be skipped.



Christel Goltz

Inge Borkh

Erna Schlüter

Astrid Varnay


Susan Bullock

Eva Johansson

Linda Watson

Annie Krull
(Elektra in 1909 premiere)



Borkh/Böhm, 1960

Polaski/Bychkov, 2004

KARL BÖHM / DRESDEN STATE ORCHESTRA
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Marianne Schech (Chrysothemis); Jean Madeira (Klytämnestra); Fritz Uhl (Aegisth); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Orest)
DGG 445329 (2 CDs) (rec. Dresden 1960)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 Klytämnestra. 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 score—and his expertise in Strauss is always apparent. Fine orchestral playing—and the early stereo recording is spacious and natural.However, later recordings of this opera with Böhm are of far greater interest.

SEMYON BYCHKOV / WDR ORCHESTRA
Deborah Polaski (Elektra); Anne Schwanewilms (Chrysothemis); Felicity Palmer (Clytemnestra); Graham Clark (Aegisth);Franz Grundheber (Orest); WDR Radio Chorus and Orch
PROFIL SACD PHO 5022 (2 disks) TT: 66:16 & 40:55 (2004)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

The highpoint of Profil's issue of Elektra is the recorded sound—superb in every way. This is in surround sound on SACD and has not been released on regular CD. However, the SACD, when played on regular units, also contains the stereo version, which is equally impressive. Every detail of the composer's complex writing is clearly presented. in surround sound, and on occasion we find ourselves onstage with voices heard from rear speakers. Bychkov is a fine Strauss conductor, with a particular love of this opera. Apparently there were numerous rehearsals and live performances before this recording was made, obvious from the disciplined playing of the WDR Orchestra. Strauss said both Salome and Elektra should be conducted as "elfin music," which Bychkov correctly interprets as it should be played with transparency and attention to detail, surely the case here. Vocally we are on shakier ground. Deborah Polaski has been singing the role of Elektra for over two decades—more than 300 performances. At this point, she doesn't have the power or thrust—or vocal control—for the climactic moments, nor did she have them for her 1995 Berlin recording with Daniel Barenboim conducting. Now at the beginning of her career, Anne Schwanewilms impresses as Chrysothemis although she doesn't have the ease of production in her big moments. Felicity Palmer is a strong Clytemnestra. Notes are provided in German and English but the libretto doesn't have them side by side which may be inconvenient for some listeners. Audio buffs might wish to have this release solely for the sonics.

EUGEN JOCHUM / Hamburg State Orchestra
Erna Schlüter (Elektra); Annelies Kupper (Chrysothemis); Gusta Hammer (Klytämnestra); Peter Markwort (Aegisth); Robert Hager (Orest).
ACANTA 442 129/130 (2 CDs) (rec. June 1944)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

MEMBRAN 233494 (2 disks)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


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 opera—as, of course, was his predecessor. In the 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, well-balanced sound. As of this wriring (6/12) this performance has also been issued on the Membran label.

FRIEDEMANN LAYER / Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon National Orchestra
Hildegard Behrens (Elektra); Luana DeVol (Chrysothemis); Leonie Rysanek (Klytämnestra); Daniel Galvez-Vallejo (Aegisth); Wolfgang Schone (Orest).
NAÏVE AT 34109 (2 CDs) (live concert 3 August 1995)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


Seven years after her Boston live performance Behrens gave this performance in France. Her artistry remains, her voice still had much of its glory of past years. Her cry "Orest!" in the recognition scene is magnificent, although she doesn't slide off the final note of the opera as she did so effectively in the 1988 performance. Rysanek's Klytämnestra is near perfect, with her huge voice providing an appropriately matronly aspect to the character. She makes the laugh almost a takeoff on Brünnhilde's Battle Cry, and it sounds as if she does the two screams as she is murdered—blood-curdling, too. DeVol is a rather wobbly Chrysothemis, hardly an appropriate match for her colleagues. The stereo sound, courtesy of the French Radio, is excellent, the French orchestra plays well, but conductor Layer misses much of the score's drama. Of interest primarily for Rysanek's Klytämnestra. This fine performance, unfortunately, currently is unavailable.



Varnay/Kraus, 1953

Varnay/Kraus, 1953

Varnay, Kraus, 1953

Borkh/Rieger, 1971

RICHARD KRAUS / Kölner Radio Symphony Orchestra
Astrid Varnay (Elektra); Res Fischer (Klytämnestra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Hans Hotter (Orest); Helmut Melchert (Agisth); Kölner Radio Chorus
CAPRICCIO 5008 (2 disks) TT: 35:32 & 65:01
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

GALA GL 100.512 (2 CDs) (rec. Aug. 1953) 75:26 & 71:07 (also contains excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier).
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

KOCH-SCHWANN 3-1643-2 (2 disks) TT: 35:25 & 64:53
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON


This memorable performance of Elektra, one of the best on CD, was issued on several labels, only one, on Capriccio, is currently available—and it is budget price, obviously the one to have. This German Cologne radio performance without an audience from August 1953 features Astrid Varnay, Leonie Rysanek and Res Fischer, a terrific trio. Varnay, then in her prime (a year after her superb Met performances with Reiner), is magnificent, fearless on those high notes, with Rysanek early in her career in what was to become a signature role.. Res Fischer, also at the beginning of her career, is Klytämnestra, providing an appropriate cackle when she learns of Orestes' supposed death, as well as a vivid scream as she is murdered. And we have the luxury of Hans Hotter as the definitive Orest. Richard Krauss is not Solti or Reiner; there are few orchestral fireworks, but he is in firm control, and provides an effective pause after the second death cry of Klytämnestra. The mono sound is well-balanced and clear, excellent for its time. The well filled Gala CDs (75:26 and 71:07) also contain about 46 minutes of Der Rosenkavalier from a Met broadcast of Feb. 28, 1953 with Varnay as the Marschallin, Risè Stevens as Octavian; Nadine Connor was Sophie in that broadcast—none of her music is included which means no final trio. This is one of the best Elektras on CD.

FRITZ RIEGER / TEATRO LA FENICE
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Regina Resnik (Klytáaemnestra); Teresa Kublak (Chrysothemis); Niels Moreller (Aegistuhs)_; Karl Nurmela (Orestes)_;
MONDO CLASSICA MFOH 10505 (2 CDs) TT: 62:48 & 39:01 (live 1971)

This is a live recording from Teatro La Fenice dating from December 1971 with several aging quality singers featured: Inge Borkh in the title role, and Regina Resnik, ass the queen. This is the last Borkh recording of the role, and her voice shows definite signs of wear and tear, although histrionically she dominates the stage; Resnik is still her usual powerful self, the remainder of the cast reasonably good. although Kubiak's Chrysothemis is far removed from the glories of Rysanek, Welitsch and others who have what it takes for this demanding role. Microphones have captured many stage sounds, particularly the klumping of Borkbh's final dance.In spite of "20 Bit High Definition Remastering" there is considerable distortion.. The set, on Mondo Musica (MFOH 10503), seems to be discontinued.

.



Polaski/Barenboim, 1995

Borkh/Reiner, 1956

Marton/Sawallisch,
 

DANIEL BARENBOIM / BERLIN STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA
Deborah Polaski (Elektra); Alessandra Marc (Chrysothemis); Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra); Johan Botha (Aegisth); Falk Struckmann (Orest)
TELDEC 99175 (2 CDs) (rec. February 1995)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

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 Chrysothemis 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 of the composer's bloodiest, most dissonant opera. Teldec's engineering is first-rate.

FRITZ REINER/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Frances Yeend (Chrysothemis); Paul Schoeffler (Orest):
RCA 67900 (also contains Dance of the Seven Veils and final scene from Salome with Inge Borkh). (rec.in 1956)

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 some excerpts were recorded:  Elektra's soliloquy "Allein! Weh, ganz allein," the complete Recognition Scene, and the opera's finale. Of course they missed the boat—they should have recorded the entire opera, just as Columbia's oversight in 1949 when they recorded just the final scene of Salome with Reiner and Ljuba Welitsch. However, we are thankful for what we have.These excerpts from Elektra are first-rate throughout. Frances Yeend isn't an ideal Chrysothemis, but her lighter voice is a welcome contrast to Borkh—and Paul Schoeffler is a superb Orest. Reiner is the real star here, a Straussian of the first order—he 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 sounding better than ever in this Living Stereo SACD issue.

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), and 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 the better of the two).  Varnay sang 5 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 of Herodias. Doubtless eventually this Elektra will be issued on CD; it is of the greatest interest..  

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH / Bavarian Radio Orchestra
Eva Marton (Elektra); Cheryl Studer (Chrysothemis); Marjana Lipovsek (Klytämnestra); Hermann Winkler (Aegisthus); Bernd Weikl (Orest).
EMI 54067 (2 CDs) (rec. 1990) (currently available only on MP3)

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 arsenal—she just belts it out in her own way, impressive for sheer volume but not very pleasant to hear—and not always quite 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 VPO—and, as he did in his live RAI performance mentioned above. Sawallisch makes a considerable pause (as does Richard Kraus) after the second scream as Klytämnestra is murdered—a terrific theater effect. EMI's stereo sound is all one could ask—but I can't help but wish that Nilsson was in the title role instead of Marton; Sawallisch and the others deserve better.



E L E K T R A ON DVD


Nilsson/Levine, 1980

Marton/Abbado,

Theorin/Gatti, 2010

Rysanek/Böhm, 1981

STRAUSS: Elektra
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Mignon Dunn (Klytämnestra); Donald McIntyre (Orest); Robert Nagy (Aegisth);Metropolitan Opera Orch/James Levine, cond. (telecast of February 16, 1980).
DGG DVD VIDEO 000747509 TT: 110 min. + 51 min. extra
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

This Elektra is, for various reasons, disappointing. The Met 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 playsmagnificently 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. This performance originally was issued on Pioneer Classics; now it is on DG which has better video and sound, but it cannot help the performance. The DG issue also includes a considerable bonus, Nilsson singing Isolde's Narrative and Curse and a Swedish folk song, from a Met telecast of 1996 marking the 25th year of James Levine's leadership of the Met (REVIEW). Also included are two audio-only interviews with Nilsson.

STRAUSS: Elektra
Eva Marton (Elektra); Cheryl Studer (Chrysothemis); Brigitte Fassbaender (Klytämnestra); Franz Grundheber (Orest); James King (Aegisth); Vienna State Opera Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT ID 9303RADV Dolby digital 5.1 surround, stereo TT: 108 min.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

Abbado's Elektra is 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.

STRAUSS: Elektra
Iréne Theorin (Elektra); Eva-Maria Westbrock (Chrysothemis); Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra); René Pape (Orestes); Robert Gambill (Aegisth); Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orch./Daniele Gatti, cond.
ARTHAUS MUSIC 101559 TT: 109 min.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

This is a stunning, effective modern treatment of Strauss's masterpiece. Nikolaus Lernhoff's direction is to the point, and the modern costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Fischer seem appropriate; Designed by Raimund Bauer, the set is stark and simple.Iréne Theorin is a powerful Elektra, with Eva-Maria Westbrock in good form. Waldtraud Meier,. dressed in purple with a boa, a is an outrageous, vicious queen who at the conclusion is seen hanging upside-down

STRAUSS: Elektra
Leonie Rysanek (Elektra); Catarina Ligendza (Chysothemis); Astrid Varnay (Klytämnestra); Hans Beirer (Aegisth); Districh Fischer-Dieskau (Orestes); Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Karl Böhm, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO B0005982-09 TT: 116 min + 92 min documentary
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

This Elektra was Karl Böhm's final project. The soundtrack was recorded in the spring of 1981; the conductor died in August of that year just before his 87th birthday. It was his wish that Rysanek sing the title role, the first time she had done this although opera lovers have cherished her Chrysothemis and, later, her Klytämestra. Although towards the end of her career, Rysanek is in superb voice, and it's fascinating to hear her in this role. Ligendza is far from an ideal Chrysothemis, Varnay an appropriately cackling Queen often singing with an approximation of the notes. Fischer-Dieskau brings great nobility to the role of Orest. Böhm's reading is slower than his 1960 DGG recording, leisurely compared with Reiner, Solti, or Mitropoulos, but the sense of occasion is here and the VPO plays magnificently for him. Götz Friedrich directed this production, with set design by Josef Svoboda and costumes by Pet Halmen. The set is appropriately bleak and often it is raining. This concept works, and has been effectively filmed by Rudolf Blahacek. The sound is fine, although the 5.l surround has been achieved via Ambient Sound Technology. Several live performances of Elektra conducted by Böhm are currently available (see ELEKTRA); the finest is the 1965 Vienna performance with Nilsson, Rysanek and Regina Resnek. A track-by-track synopsis is included, with subtitles only in English. The second DVD contains a fascinating 90-minute documentary by Norbert Beilharz on Böhm and his long association with the opera, with many clips from recording sessions which took place in Vienna's Musikverein (the music) and a huge locomotive factory in Vienna (the video); lyp-sync is remarkably accomplished. A superb release!



Johannsson/Dohnányi, 2003

Watson/Thielemann, 2010

Behrens/Levine, 1994
 

STRAUSS: Elektra
Eva Johannsson (Elektra); Marjana Lipovsek (Klytämnestra); Melanie Diener (Chrysothemis); Rudolf Schlasching (Aegisth); Alfred Muff (Orest); Zürich Opera Chorus and Orch/Christoph von Dohnányi, cond.
TDK DVD VIDEO DVWW-OPELEK TT: 102 min.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

This Zurich production of Elektra is fascinating in many ways. Director Martin Kusej and designer Rolf Glittenberg give their interpretation of Hofmannsthal's tragedy. Elektra is "a young punk with clumpy shoes, jogging trousers and a hooded jumper." The serving maidens wear short skirts and skimpy aprons, characters seem constantly to be running across the stage in various states of undress and provocative action. At the time of Elektra's triumphant final dance (very understated by the protagonist), we see a Brazilian cabaret scene and dancers with gaudy costumes. After the premiere at the Zurich Opera House December 13, 2003, critics wrote of this production, "sick, but superb," and "madness without end." Christoph von Dohnányi conducts with total authority, and the cast is uniformly strong. Eva Johannsson negotiates the title role with ease; doubtless we will be hearing much more from her. Melanie Diener, one of the newest singers on the Strauss horizon, shows she has what it takes. Marjana Lipovsek is totally neurotic as Klytämnestra and, unfortunately, is costumed in comic fashion; her murder scene doesn't amount to much, and Rudolf Schasching is a mincing, weakling Aegisth. Sound quality is superb, but Felix Breisach's video direction has far too many super closeups. This is an intriguing new look at Strauss's masterpiece—but one I probably will not watch again..

STRAUSS: Elektra
Linda Watson (Elektra); Jane Henschel (Klytämnestra); Manuela Uhl (Chrysothgemis); René Kollo (Aegisth); Albert Dohmen (Orest); Vienna Philharmonia Chor/ Munich Philharmonic Orch/Christian Thielemann, cond.
OPUS ARTE DVD VIDEO OA BD 7082 TT: 126 min.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

This production of Elektra by Herbert Wernicke was first given in October 1992 at the Bavarian State Opera; this revival was in January/February 2010. In many ways, it is striking concept of Strauss's masterpiece, with a bare set and a huge black moving panel that when moved lets us see brilliant expanses of blood red. Elektra wears a dark gown, Chrysothemis wears white, Klytämnestra wears red, Orest has a rumpled business suit and Aegisth wears a white dinner jacket. For the most part, singers face the audience and do not interact with each other. Throughout most of the opera, Elektra carries an axe, and it is a stunning moment when she swings it twice as her mother is killed. However, the mood is quickly broken when she has an electric lantern to light the way for Aegisth. At the end of the opera, Elektra doesn't do a dance of triumph as Strauss wanted; she turns her back to the audience and kills herself with the axe (!). There is no explanation for these arbitrary decisions by director Wernicke. Linda Watson was to make her debut as Elektra with the Vienna State Opera, but on eight week's notice appeared in this production when the scheduled soprano cancelled. Watson is outstanding vocally, as is Jane Henschel as the Queen. This cannot be said of German soprano Manuela Uhl, who doesn't have the power and stability the role of Chrysothemis demands. Uhl (b. 1971) has been a favorite in German opera houses in a wide variety of roles that range from Handel and Strauss to contemporary opera. She has been acclaimed by some for her Salome (you can see a snippet of it on YouTube). Albert Dohmen is a strong Orest, and the tattered voice of veteran René Kollo is appropriate for Aegisth. The orchestra under Christian Thielemann's powerful direction, is superb. Video and audio are first-rate. This is an intriguing view of Elektra, but I imagine most viewers would prefer a more standard production. This modern production makes much more sense than the Zurich version mentioned above.

STRAUSS: Elektra
Hildegard Behrens (Elektra); Deborah Voight (Chrysothemnis); Brigitte Fassbaender (Klytämnestra); James King (Donald McIntyre (Orest); James King (Aegisth); Metropolitan Opera Orch/James Levine, cond.
DECCA 1135791355 (21 DISKS)
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON

Here is something very special. This Elektra was fimed in January 1994, a spectacular performance in every way with Hildegard Behrens in top form, Deborah Vloight in one of her finest roles, far removed from her vocal decline of recent years. Brigitte Fassbaender is also superb, and the remaining cast could not be bettered. Behrens acts magnificently, and her final dance is outstanding. This performance is far superior to the other Met DVD (with Nilsson and Rysanek), and it has the advantage of stereo sound that beautifully captures the performance, along with clear video. This is the preferred DVD of Elektra. Unfortunately, it is only availablre in the Decca release of the Met's huge 21 DVD set commemorating the first four decades of James Levine's leadership of the Met. But this set should be in every opera lover's collection, as it also contains Lulu, The Marriage of Figaro, Wozzeck, The Ghosts of Versailles, Il Trittico, The Bartered Bride, Der Rosenkavalier, Don Carlo, and Rise amd Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as In Concert at the Met. It's a fabulous set—don't miss it!!.

R E C O M M E N D A T I O N S

For overall quality, the DVD to have is the Met 1994 performance with Behrens and Voight, James Levine conducting. And for a non-offensive modern approach, the Theorin performance conducted by Gatti is probably the most interesting. And there are many "pirate" videos available. Often video quality and audio disappoint, but the performances are of gtreat interest; check out PREMIERE OPERA