The Metropolitan Opera started its 60th week of streaming with its 2016 production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra. The title role is sung by the incomparable Nina Stemme and it is a production that deserves repeated viewings and, if you will, repeated reviews. When you see one production, you must want to see more so you reach to your shelves for DVDs that provide just such opportunities. I did not resist the temptation and will comment on several other productions.
I counted about 15 video recordings of Elektra starting with a 1961 CBC recording in English conducted by Walter Susskind in Toronto. No doubt there are many more. The thought of commenting on all of them would make everyone run for cover, but fortunately, I can’t even get my hands on most of them. But I do have a few.
One of the earliest recordings boasts the incomparable star power of Birgit Nilsson as Electra and the inimitable talent of Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis. That makes it at least historic. It was recorded in 1980 for television by the Metropolitan Opera of New York and was conducted by the young James Levine. Unfortunately, Nilsson at 61 was past her prime and not at her best. Rysanek is superb even though she had a cold. Director Herbert Graf gave us a conservative production set in a dark cavern and frequently you see singers with nothing but darkness in the background. The video is passable and you watch the DVD more for its historical position than its quality.
In 1981 Karl Bohm conducted a production with Leonie Rysanek as Electra, Caterina Ligendza as Chrysothemis and Astrid Varnay as Clytemnestra, directed by Gz Friedrich. It is a film rather than a taped stage production and it was shot piecemeal with the music and singing being recorded first and the action afterwards. To coin a phrase, it will knock your socks off.
Friedrich treats Electra as an unhinged woman, full of hatred and bent on murder and revenge for her father’s slaying by none other than her mother. In her first aria, Electra who is drenched from the rain and looks deranged, recalls the murder of her father Agamemnon by her mother Clytemnestra. Friedrich illustrates the aria with gory views of the axe murder. Electra embraces a bust of her father and kisses it passionately on the lips. We also have views of Agamemnon as he looked when he was alive.
Rysanek gave a vocal and acting performance of epic proportions. Her powerful voice is superb and, since it was recorded in a studio, always impeccable. Her acting as a fury maniacally intent on vengeance is terrifying.
Ligendza’s voice as Chrysothemis is softer, more lyrical and her portrayal of Electra’s sister is more humane. Electra curses her for not wanting to participate in the murder of their mother but we sympathize with her and give kudos to Ligendza’s performance.
Clytemnestra in the hands of Varnay is frightful. She wears a spiked crown, walks with two bejeweled royal staffs for support staves and there are gobs of makeup around her eyes. She has nightmares about her axing of her husband and she looks nightmarish herself. Varnay brings out the frightful Clytemnestra vocally and theatrically.
Friedrich films the production in some ruins and we see a burning building on the side. The maids look like the Witches in Macbeth and incidentally so does Electra. He has the advantages of film making including closeups, different camera angles and the provision of details that may not be available in a stage production. The result is a production of incredible power and an unforgettable performance of an opera.
The 2010 Salzburg Festival production of Elektra was recorded live from the Grosses Festspielhaus. It was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and the Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by Daniele Gatti. It is a well-sung and highly laudable production that looks and sounds excellent on Blu-ray.
Iréne Theorin gives a powerful, white-faced Electra who is somewhat unhinged. Her singing is more lyrical than Wagnerian but her overall performance is convincing. Eva-Maria Westbroek plays a sympathetic Chrysothemis who wants marriage and children instead of revenge and murder. Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra appears in sunglasses and a trailing red/burgundy fur coat, the image of arrogance. When we see her in an ordinary dress, she appears like a deeply troubled woman, somewhat sympathetic, looking for pity.
The set designed by Raimund Bauer consists of asymmetrical concrete walls and floors with numerous openings. The maids appear in the openings of the walls as do other characters. The effect is very dramatic.
Lehnhoff adds numerous fine details that enhance the drama. Electra finds a large coat and she picks it up and embraces it. It is the coat of Agamemnon. The final tableau after Orestes (the marvelous René Pape) murders his mother and Aegisthus (Robert Gambill) opens with the body of Clytemnestra hanging from her feet and Aegisthus on the ground. There is blood all over.
Electra places Agamemnon’s coat on Orestes’ shoulders as if peace has been restored but ghostly darkness fills the stage. The Furies have arrived and as Electra drops dead Lehnhoff tells us that the hereditary curse on The House of Atreus has yet to be expiated.
Which brings us to the Met’s 2016 production directed by Patrice Chéreau with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Met Opera Orchestra. It is a masterly production that is faithful to the text while brilliantly moving it forward. Patrice and Set designer Richard Peduzzi set the action in a recognizable, large courtyard, the Palace of Agamemnon in Mycenae.
The maids are working with buckets and brooms and giving us a description of Electra’s bizarre behaviour. She rushes in, runs around, crouches, crawls, looks wild and gives every indication that she is deranged. She relives her father Agamemnon’s murder by her mother Clytemnestra and dances with orgiastic furor at the thought of vengeance. Nina Stemme looks, acts and sings madness. Her eyes alone tell a story of a woman in desperation. Elektra has struck me as an extended Mad Scene for its main character and this production confirmed that view. It amounts to a supreme performance by Nina Stemme.
I think Waltraud Meier was misdirected as Clytemnestra. She is a slut and the axe murderer of her husband. Is it any wonder that she is having nightmares and looking for a cure? Meier is fine vocally but in her nice dress she appears almost attractive and to be pitied. I suppose I have never found much decency in Clytemnestra from Aeschylus down and Chéreau’s treatment of her struck me as incongruous. Adrianne Pieczonka was splendid as Chrysothemis and Eric Owens was superb as Orestes.
Elektra is reputed to demand the largest orchestra for any opera. I do not know if the Met complied but the performance of its orchestra under Salonen was titanic.
This is opera at its best.
Elektra by Richard Strauss (music), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto) was streamed by the Met Opera on May 3, 2021. For more information go to www.metopera.org/