Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

: Elektra
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra), Marta Szirmay (Klytamnestra), Gwyneth Jones (Chrysothemis), Donald McIntyre (Orestes) & Charles Craig (Aegisthus).Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Carlos Kleiber
rec London, 1977. 2 discs (stereo), Mid-price on Golden Melodram GM 6.0001.
+ Coupled with Alban Berg: Wozzeck Suite, Wendy Fine (sop), Symphony-Orchestra of Radio Cologne, Carlos Kleiber (1972)

The sole UK distributor for all Golden Melodram Discs is MDC Classics. Phone +44 (0)20 7240 2157


Herbert Von Karajan, Salzburg 1964 (ORFEO C 298 922 1)

Dmitri Mitropoulos, Salzburg 1957 (ORFEO C 456 972 1)

Richard Krauss, Cologne 1953 (GALA GL 100.512)


Carlos Kleiber has conducted Strauss' Elektra only eight times in his career - five performances at Covent Garden in 1977 and three at Stuttgart in 1971. By contrast, he has conducted Der Rosenkavalier 123 times (94 of those at the Bavarian State Opera). Along with Berg's Wozzeck, Wagner's Tristan and Verdi's La Traviata these are the operas with which Kleiber is most associated. To have any recording by him is treasure indeed, but I will say from the outset that this single Elektra is an astonishing performance, one of the most shattering that I have ever heard.

Elektra is almost unique in that all of it's greatest performances stem from live broadcasts. Böhm's, Solti's and Sinopoli's are the best of the studio recordings, but you have to turn to Dmitri Mitropoulos (Salzburg 1957 or New York 1958), Richard Krauss (Cologne 1953) or, best of all, Karajan (Salzburg 1964) to hear this opera as it should be played. Karajan gives this opera an incandescence that is unequalled, but Kleiber goes one step further drawing the most refined distinctions between the opera's dissonance and lyrical consonance more tangibly than any other interpreter. Kleiber clearly sees Elektra as being closer to Der Rosenkavalier than many other conductors of this work, not least in the multiplicity of musical styles employed by Strauss.

The drama of the narrative lends Elektra an almost symphonic structure. The orchestral forces are vast, but Kleiber, whilst relishing every ff is capable of giving this music the Mendelssohnian dreamscape Strauss hinted at. The great orchestral interventions - the opening D minor eruption, the procession of Klytamnestra, the great Elektra-Klytamnestra scene, with its pulsating turbulence, the murders of Klytamnestra and Aegisthus, and the concluding, frenzied waltz - are all handled magnificently with orchestral playing that raises the roof. By contrast, the Elektra-Chrysothemis exchanges and the Recognition scene are dramatically lyrical and sensuously dark-toned. The instability Strauss creates before Elektra's 'Orest..' is almost gratuitously pagan, but when she begins her monologue the textures are ravishingly delineated by Kleiber. The poetry of the woodwind, in particular, is evocatively scented.

If Kleiber's opening is brutally arresting, with D minor more gloomy than ever, Elektra's opening monologue makes her isolation sound even more unbearable than usual. Birgit Nilsson breathes real darkness into her opening lines (and is never off stage again). The C minor of her opening lament is, at the end of the opera, more passionately converted to a triumphant C major victory than on any other performance I can recall. When we get to the first Chrysothemis-Elektra scene (with Gwyneth Jones passionate but wobbling precariously) Kleiber makes the diatonism of the music more opaque than anyone else. The symmetry he gives this scene, and the following one with Elektra and Klytamnestra, makes the counterweight between the two more transparently obvious than is usual. The thick chromaticism and underpinned dissonance of the Klytamenestra exchanges are certainly more threatening than we usually expect. Nilsson and Szimay are thrilling in this section, lending real dramatic intensity to their exchanges. Nilsson's high B flats and Cs are flung off with tremendous abandon, her climactic last C absolutely stunningly achieved, floating as if from the heavens themselves.

The freneticism of this performance is hard to describe. The murder of Klytamnestra is a towering moment, and Kleiber invests the clusters of semitones, immediately after the death blow, with an ardour that makes the final F sharp eruption volcanic. But it is the Final Scene, with its transformation from victory (revenge) to death that gives this performance the edge over any other. Alfred Kalisch, writing after the premier of the opera in 1909, described the Final Scene as thus: 'The mind has to travel back far in a search for anything at all comparable to it in musical mastery and almost elemental emotional power'. It's potency is unrivalled, and a great performance will make it the dramatic powerhouse that it is. In structure, this scene is like no other in Strauss' output: it does not have the monologue solo that ends Salome or Capriccio, and neither does it have the duet-finale that concludes Der Rosenkavalier, or the ensemble finale that ends Die Frau öhne Schatten. It's ending is really Elektra's dance, a cathartic outburst that is both frenzied and liberating. Beginning at Reh. 247a, Kleiber gives us a dance of manic dimensions, concluding at 3 bars before Reh. 261a with violins and violas sustaining their high Ds beautifully at fff before the catastrophic thunder at 261a on full orchestra resolving to low brass and woodwind and Chrysothemis' final cries of 'Orest! Orest!'. The final brass and string peroration is thrilling.

This performance of Elektra has often been described as the 'performance of one's dreams'. Birgit Nilsson is marvellous in the title role, certainly more majestic than she was for Solti, and Gwyneth Jones is a thrilling Chrysothemis, even if she covers her notes with more than are marked in the score. The wobble is there, but it does not detract from the passion of her singing. Donald McIntyre is deep-toned as Orestes, and Marta Szimay is a stunning Klytamnestra, if without quite the power Martha Mödl brought to this role in Karajan's superb recording. Kleiber, however, is just sensational in this music. His conducting is fiery, and he gets from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificent playing.

If there is a drawback to this performance it must be the recorded sound. It was never actually broadcast, the tapes for this release being made available by someone who recorded the opera on tape in the auditorium at the first performance. Played at a loud volume there is a persistent 'frying' sound in the background, and both orchestra and soloists can sound very forward. There is some distortion, but not enough to wreck the experience of hearing this incandescent performance. An unfortunate editing mistake has meant that the final chords of the opera appear with an unscheduled break. The sound, however, is in stereo, although hearing the wonderful Berg coupling from a radio tape from 1972, with the stereo magnificently captured, perhaps makes one regret a better sound source does not exist. It is, however, an indispensable performance that everyone who loves this opera should acquire.


Marc Bridle




Marc Bridle



Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers :

Concert and Show tickets


Musicians accessories

Click here to visit

Return to Index