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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.
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 the 1952 Met broadcast conducted by Fritz Reiner.
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, Dani--za 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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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
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)
TThis 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.
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)
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.
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 the1848 Mitropoulos/Reiner tradition but this recording has minimal interest vocally. Tragic! The sound is adequate to convey the performance. However, there hope for fans of Carlos Kleiber—a pirate live 1977 London recording with Birgit Nilsson and Gwyneth Jones (both at their best) as the two sisters. It is stunning, obviously recorded from the audience, but audio that does justice to the incandescent performance
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)
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)
DIMITRI MITROPOULOS / VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Inge Borkh (Elektra); Lisa della Casa (Chrysothemis); Jean Madeira (Klytämnestra); Max Lorenz (Aegisth); Kurt Bohme (Orest)
ORFEO C 456 972 1 (Salzburg Festival August 7, 1957
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.
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.
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.