The received wisdom about Richard Strauss’s first two mature operas – Salome and Elektra – is that the composer wrote them in a progressive musical language which anticipated the abandonment of tonality, only to retreat into a conservative, populist idiom in his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier. According to this view his later stage-works never returned to this adventurousness. This belief has adversely affected Strauss’s reputation. He has been depicted as an arch-conservative who betrayed his talents out of laziness or, even worse, to make a fast buck.
The modernism of Elektra which aroused such a furore (and a volley of critical notices) after its premiere in Dresden in 1908, now seems more apparent than real, and the difference between it and the works which follow less striking. That there are many passage of atonal writing is undeniable, the latter part of the Elektra/Klytämnestra scene for example. However, the music of Elektra, just like Strauss’s operatic oeuvre, is by no means homogeneous. There are plenty of pages in the score which anticipate Der Rosenkavalier and its sugary string-writing, while the one-act opera foreshadows the orchestral virtuosity of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Elektra provides plenty of evidence of Strauss’s ability to knit together different musical style, something which Strauss had been exercising in his orchestral works; indeed his biographer Norman Del Mar calls Salome and Elektra “Stage Tone Poems”, a perceptive observation.
What is undeniable is the quality of the libretto which Hugo von Hofmannsthal supplied in this, the first collaboration between poet and composer. There is hardly any action and most of what there is happens offstage. The substance of the opera consists largely of a series of conversations. Some quickly develop into confrontations. Those involving Elektra are laced with her cunning, deceit and ruthlessness.
If the music caused outrage then the libretto ought to have had at least an equal effect. The language in which Elektra describes her precise plans for wreaking her vengeance is so physical, so violent that no music other than Strauss’s belligerent sniper fire for the voice and the barrage of orchestral artillery that accompanies it could possible embody it. Similarly, in the duet which follows, the poet has given such powerful words to Chrysothemis to express her feeling of confinement and her desperation to conceive a child that only an outburst of sweeping romantic lyricism supported by massed strings could contain it.
The following scene between Elektra and Klytämnestra is pivotal in Hofmannsthal’s dramatic construction. The decision for Klytämnestra to dismiss her attendants and to approach Elektra alone for help in seeking a cure for her frightening dreams is inspired. It sets her up for the game of cat-and-mouse which her daughter plays with her. Again the language is crucial: the imagery with which she describes her dreams and the violent lengths to which she is prepared to go to rid herself of the torment they cause her is nauseating. Far from enlisting Elektra as an ally, she has thrown herself on the mercy of someone who is merciless. Elektra’s vision of her mother’s pursuit through the castle and the suffering to which she will be subjected in the drawn-out process of her own execution is as explicit as anything the contemporary horror-fiction or indeed the film industry has produced. Strauss did not fail to supply a score to match.
The announcement of Orestes’s supposed death forces Elektra’s hand: she must exert pressure on her sister to join her as a second assassin. It was a brilliant theatrical idea that she should resort to flattery (and consistent with the imaginative world which Hofmannsthal created) so that his Elektra expresses herself in language of extreme physicality. When that trick fails and Chrysothemis demurs the character of Elektra’s music changes as she abjects herself with an offer of dedicated sisterhood in swirling, mercurial music which would not be out of place in the love music of later operas. With the curse which follows Chrysothemis’s refusal she reverts to type.
The arrival of Orest has distinctive music of its own, with solemn Wagnerian brass chords and dragging rhythms before the ‘Recognition Scene’ with its resolution into the richest tonal effusion in the work. The scene with Aegisth is a miniature gem. He is swiftly characterised with a little limping figure and wailing vocal line. Elektra welcomes him, reassures him in his anxiety, offers to escort him inside in the darkness and even pretends to be no longer an irritant to him, all to music which would not be out of place in Der Rosenkavalier. No happy ending is possible to this hideous tale. How fitting is the conclusion: Elektra, the model of nihilism that Hofmannsthal has created turns in on herself, oblivious to everything around her, the relationship wither sister reduced to a dialogue of the deaf. In her planning she has rehearsed a dance for this moment but in the event she dances herself to death.
This LSO Live release is derived from two concerts and a dress rehearsal. The first of the performances was reviewed for Classical Source by Alexander Campbell and the evidence of the live recording confirms much of his aural response on the night. He describes the LSO as being on “blistering form” and is struck by the clarity of texture which its playing delivers. He compliments Valery Gergiev’s control of dynamics. I am less easily persuaded about this: the volume of sound released by the orchestra is more than a shade excessive and one is aware of unease among the singers quite commonly. Campbell and I are in agreement as far as the final scene is concerned: the orchestral tumult virtually overwhelms the singers.
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet replaced Eva Johansson at a late stage as Elektra. On this evidence she is not the Hoch Dramatischer Sopran that the role requires. The beginnings of a wobble are there to hear and if she is not unhappy with the accuracy of her high notes she certainly ought to be. Shots are fired at Bs and Cs more in hope than expectation. On the plus side, at the other end of the part’s range she scores by having a strong chest register, which is used surprisingly often by Strauss. To be fair to her, it could be argued that such a depraved character as Elektra should not be sung in a neat and tidy way and if vocal discipline is not Charbonnet’s strong suit that may be a virtue in this role. In any case it seems that her contribution to the evening was more than strictly a vocal one. It is clear from Campbell’s account that her performance and its impact were the product of her physical acting and her visible interaction with the other characters as much as her singing. He says that she “sustained the intensity of the performance at a high level”. In this respect she would not be the first soprano in to compensate for vocal shortcomings with engaging dramatic skills: Gwyneth Jones and Deborah Polaski come readily to mind.
As Chrysothemis, Angela Denoke is better equipped to undertake her role than the American soprano hers. The size of Denoke’s voice allows her to remain within her comfort zone and the range of the part does not cause her audible troubles, even in an uncut performance. It is difficult to find any faults in Felicity Palmer’s classic Klytämnestra. Under her dramatic management her long, constantly evolving scene is compelling. The voice in the lower reaches has the colour, strength and solidity of mahogany. There are no signs of a break between registers. Throughout the words are crystal-clear, permitting only a very occasional exaggeration. Indeed she is always scrupulously musical and no thoughts of caricature invade one’s attention.
I tend to disagree with Campbell about Matthias Goerne’s Orest, which he finds “bland, uninvolved and uninvolving”. He falls not far short of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in establishing a dark, mysterious presence at his entry. Perhaps he is a little cool as the ‘Recognition Scene’ develops and his mission promises to be fulfilled. For Ian Storey to take time out from his Heldentenor repertory is a bonus. For him to create an individual sound for the character of Ägisthus is even better. For the character parts including servants and serving-maids, Gergiev imported singers from his Mariinsky troupe and they make their mark.
I listened to three other recordings of the work for comparative purposes, each conducted by maestros who could be regarded as Strauss specialists. Karl Böhm’s 1960 recording features Inge Borkh, a scandalously under-recorded prima donna of the post-war years who retired with her voice well and truly intact. She is well in command of the vocal elements of the part of Elektra. Her interpretation is greatly enhanced by the absolute clarity of her enunciation. Marianne Schech gives a characteristically reliable performance as her sister and Jean Madeira is an impeccably musical and experienced interpreter of Klytämnastra. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau makes more than any other singer of Orest’s music (and text). Unfortunately there are cuts (one major one in the second Elektra-Chrysothemis duet) which compromise the recording. How Böhm, who had a close relationship with Strauss, could have sanctioned these excisions is a mystery.
1967 brought only the second complete recording, from Decca in its John Culshaw-inspired “Sonicstage” era, with singer movement, changes of perspective and – now seeming gratuitous and distracting – sound-effects. Georg Solti had not only the Vienna Philharmonic giving its all but also BIrgit Nilsson, fabulously firm of tone, the top notes hitting their target dead in the centre. Marie Collier’s tremulous timbre (horizontal not vertical, so not a wobble) can be wearing but Regina Resnik brings many colours to her interpretation of Klytämnestra. Tom Krause is a sombre, single-minded Orest.
Wolfgang Sawallisch was the longest-serving General Music Director of Bavarian State Opera in the twentieth-century and his 1990 recording of Elektra confirms his command of the Strauss style. The balance is just about ideal: the orchestral sound has great presence but is never allowed to swamp the singers. Eva Marton’s voice is slightly less well focused than Borkh’s but one is always conscious of its size and Elektra’s confrontations with Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra have a heroic scale. Cheryl Studer was then at the height of a career which later petered out. She sang a surprising range of roles and the elasticity of the voice and its emotional tug make her an entirely sympathetic Chrysothemis. Marjana Lipovsek exudes musical class but her Klytämnestra could do with a few rough edges. Bernd Weikl is a light-voiced Orest.
This LSO Live recording offers the listener an exciting account of the score of Elektra and makes a strong case for it as being a masterpiece. The libretto and an English translation are included in the booklet.