Richard STRAUSS: 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.
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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.