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Richard Strauss is a strange anomaly among classical music composers. He wrote his best pieces while he was still a young man, from 1885-1911, when he was between twenty-one and forty-seven years of age. Unlike Rossini, who stopped writing music altogether after age thirty-seven, Strauss continued as a prolific composer almost up to his death at age 85, but very few of the works he wrote during his last forty years have garnered much interest from the public nor much respect from musicologists. The Alpine Symphony from 1915 is pretty good. I've heard part or all of eight of the ten operas Strauss wrote after 1911 and have not been especially impressed by any of them. Arabella (1933) is pretty good. Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) will be staged at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2009/10 season, but none of these later works of Strauss hold the stage on a regular basis. Somewhere along the way, Strauss's creative genius began to fail him.
There is no denying, however, that the youthful Richard Strauss was blessed with a prodigious helping of raw musical genius. In the last fifteen years of the 19th-century, the young Strauss had made such a mark, through his work both as a conductor and a composer, that by the turn of the century, he was widely considered the leading figure in German musical life. He was universally admired and respected. His early works were often startling in their bold originality, brilliant orchestral effects, dissonance, passion, sensuality, and realism.
Strauss weathered the political upheaval of World I, maintaining his position of preeminence. Later, the rise of the Nazis and World War II took a much greater toll on Strauss's stature. He initially sought to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime – some might even say he compromised his integrity – substituting when Bruno Walter was suddenly removed from his post as musical director of the Leipzig Orchestra and supporting the Nazi effort to purge German music of Jewish influences. Soon, however, Strauss ran afoul of the Nazis by insisting on continuation of his collaboration with a Jewish librettist for the opera Die schweigsame Frau (1935). Strauss spent most of World War II in Switzerland and, although his initial conduct in relation to the Nazis had not been exemplary, he was ultimately fully exonerated of Nazi collaboration by one of the American denazification courts following the war.
Place in the Repertoire: The opera Elektra (1909) falls immediately between Strauss's other two greatest operas, Salome (1905) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911). It bears far more similarity to its predecessor opera than its successor. Salome and Elektra are each characterized by stark realism and intensely morbid subject matter. Both are intensely psychoanalytic in nature. It was, after all, the age of the rise of Freudian psychology. In 1905, Strauss had attended a performance in Berlin of the play Elektra by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Like Freud, Hofmannsthal was Viennese. His reinvention of the classic story of Elektra transposed it from a classic tale of simple revenge to a study of hysterical obsession and neurotic female sexuality. Strauss immediately sought the playwright's permission to set the text to music, thus inaugurating one of the most important creative partnerships in operatic history. Hofmannsthal wrote in total six libretti for Strauss.
What Strauss brought to the opera Elektra was far more than just a compatible musical setting for Hofmannsthal's powerful psychological study. Strauss provided violently discordant passages, penetrating orchestration, and vocal music that literally shrieked of hysteria. Strauss substituted a wild and gripping expressionism for the intimate naturalism of Hofmannsthal's play. Instead of the almost chamber quality of the play, Strauss called for an unusually extensive array of musical forces, with three groups of strings, eight clarinets, eight horns, and four tubas. With these musical resources, Strauss was able to reinforce the violent frenzy of the text with turbulent musical passages. The end result was a tour de force of powerful and disturbing musical realism.
Subject Matter in Brief: The general contours of the Elektra story will be familiar to most readers. Klytemnestra, Queen of Thebes, with the aid of her lover Aegisthus, murdered her husband, King Agamemnon, attacking him with a net and an axe while be lay in his bath. The psychological repercussions of that murder for the children of Klytemnestra and Agamemnon are the principal concern of the opera. One daughter, Chrysothemis, though pained by the event, has accommodated herself to the new realities of the household and wants to move on into married life as soon as possible. Her sister, Elektra, however, is obsessed with a need for retribution. Daily, she attends her father's gravesite at the very time of day when he was murdered, reinforcing her determination to lead both her mother and her step-father to their own graves.
Shortly after her father's murder, Elektra had the foresight to spirit away her younger brother, Orestes, who would likely have been murdered by Aegisthus as a precaution. Orestes has grown up with relatives in a foreign land. Elektra impatiently awaits the day when Orestes will return to avenge his father's murder. The guilt-racked Klytemnestra suffers insomnia due to nightmares. Electra advisers her that only Klytemnestra's own death can free her from the disturbing dreams.
News arrives that Orestes has died in a riding accident. This development is cause for jubilation for Klytemnestra and Aegisthus but further deepens Electra's hysteria and suffering. Electra tries to enlist her horrified sister, Chrysothemis, in a plot to murder the mother and step-father, but Chrysothemis just isn't as committed to vengeance as is Electra.
A pair of strangers arrives and confronts Elektra during her vigil at Agamemnon's grave. They are the two men who arrived with the news of Orestes's death. After Electra reveals her identity, the younger of the two strangers reveals that he is, in fact, Orestes. He's come in disguise, traveling with his former tutor, in order to gain access to the royal household. Elektra's excitement is palpable. Orestes enters the castle and murders their mother. When Aegisthus returns from the fields, Elektra, feigning deference, lights his way into the dwelling, where he, in turn, is butchered by Orestes. Elektra, whose entire existence has focused for years on revenge, is ecstatic. She dances a wild, insane, triumphal dance before collapsing in death on her father's tomb.
Quality as a Work of Art: This opera is an utterly brilliant work of art that accomplishes an uncommon integration of music and drama into a compelling, if disturbing, theatrical experience. The music-making and the play-writing are both exquisite, but the product synthesized from the mixing of the two is other-worldly. That's not to say, however, that every viewer will value an experience with this opera. It is so powerful that some will find it too disturbing, even while acknowledging, perhaps, the work's great artistic merit. An experience with Elektra forces one to wallow about for two hours in the compost of the human psyche.
In my opinion, the character Elektra represents human vengeance in its purest form. There's an old saying to the effect that "before setting out on a course of vengeance, dig two graves." For Elektra, three graves will be necessary, since there are two objects of her vengeance – plus her own. When a person becomes obsessed with vengeance, oftentimes life will become meaningless if that vengeance is ultimately achieved. Elektra says as much during her wild, climactic death spiral in the opera's final scene:
And in this hour I am the fire of life
And my flame burns up the darkness in the world.
My face must be whiter than the glowing white face of the moon.
If anyone looks at me, he must embrace death
Or waste away with joy.
Musical Performances: There are four great performances contained in this recording, but two, in particular, were performances for the ages. The performance by Leonie Rysanek as Elektra deserved an Academy Award. German soprano Rysanek was born in 1926 and passed away in 1998. During a forty-year career, she appeared throughout the world as a soloist as well as founding her own troupe of singers. She performed both Verdi and Wagner with equal facility. Although the top end of her soprano range was not as clarion as that of the top-tier of world-class sopranos, her performances were marked by a visceral quality that few other operatic sopranos could match. Some of her performances became legendary, such as the time she appeared in The Flying Dutchman with George London when the audience continued to applaud throughout the entire intermission. It is that kind of extraordinary power that Rysanek brought to her performance here in the title role. Her vocal performance is perfect and her acting is even better. The great Birgit Nilsson, who played Electra many times, had wanted the part but Karl Böhm took something of a gamble on Rysanek and it paid off handsomely.
The other faultless performance in this recording was provided by Astrid Varney (1918-2006). Varnay, an American dramatic soprano of Hungarian ancestry and Swedish birth, was the daughter of two opera singers, a tenor and a coloratura soprano. She grew up in New York City, raised by her mother after her father's early death when Astrid was just six. She came under the wing of the great Kirsten Flagstad. By age twenty-two, Varney already had a repertoire of fifteen leading dramatic soprano roles, mostly Wagnerian. Her Metropolitan debut was in 1941 in Die Walküre. In her younger days, Varney had sometimes assumed the role of Elektra, but for this rendition from 1981, Varney provided a performance as Klytemnestra that applied a frighteningly grotesque edge to her guilty and disturbed character. Her physical performance is so engrossing you tend to lose track of just how great Varney's vocal work is.
There's a third very good performance among the women in this production. Swedish soprano Catarina Ligendza, born in 1937 in Stockholm, provides a dramatic interpretation of the younger sister, Chrysothemis, who is awash in burgeoning sexuality. Ligendza was born Katarina Beyron. She made her operatic debut in 1965 as the Countess in Le Nozzze di Figaro. She was best known for her work in Wagnerian operas.
The part of Orestes is played effectively by the great bass-baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who I've admired for many years, none the less so because he and I share the same birthday (but not birth years). Fischer-Dieskau is perhaps best known for performance of choral music and lieder, but has also appeared in opera, mainly at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. His role in Elektra was not as demanding as any of the three lead female roles, but he was very convincing in his part. Also effective was Hans Beirer in the small role of Aegisthus.
Karl Böhm (1894-1981) will need no introduction to older readers. He was a great Austrian conductor with impeccable credentials, taste, spirit, and authority. He knew Richard Strauss personally. Böhm taped the present recording near the end of his life and never saw the final fruits of the effort. The film was still in post-production when he passed away. In every musical respect, this film is a great performance of Elektra.
Staging: The director, Götz Friedrich, and the set designer, Josef Svoboda, refitted an abandoned locomotive factory in Vienna into the dark and foreboding royal dwelling used for this production. Most of the scenes take place in driving rain. The film is in color, but the hues have been drained out of the images in most of the scenes, creating a dull, dank atmosphere throughout. It's startling near the end to see streams of ruby red blood mixing with the rain runoff. All-in-all, Friedrich created a spine-tingling masterpiece, half horror film and half psychodrama.
The cinematography is superlative, with magnificent framing, mise-en-scène, and a good balance between facial close-ups and wider angle shots. This is clearly one instance when the cinematic rendition exceeds anything that could be accomplished live and on-stage with this opera.
Technical Aspects: The second disk in this two disk set is entirely devoted to a documentary detailing the making of Elektra. Director Götz Friedrich makes an appearance, along with all of the principal singers. Karl Böhm is seen conducting the orchestra during the recording of the soundtrack. This Deutsche Grammophon DVD of a 1981 performance is coded for worldwide playback. The performance language is German. The menu language is English. Optional subtitles are provided in Chinese, English, French, and Spanish. The video aspect ratio is 4:3. Sound formats include PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0, the last only for the documentary on disk 2. The opera's running time is 116 minutes. The documentary runs 92 minutes.
Bottom-Line: This recording brings to DVD a justly legendary performance of a spell-binding, heart-rending, and disturbing opera. The performances by Leonie Rysanek and Astrid Varnay are utterly riveting. The musical performance by Karl Böhm and the Wiener Philharmoniker is impeccable.
You can easily access my other opera reviews using the following lists:
Top-Twelve Film Versions of Operas
Metalluk's Twenty Best Pre-Romantic (Baroque & Classicism) Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty-five Best Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty Best Non-Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Thirty Best Operas of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Metalluk's Best Opera from Each Decade of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age