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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra, Tragedy in one act (1906)
Gwyneth Jones (soprano) - Elektra
Leonie Rysanek (soprano) - Clytemnestra
Anne Evans (soprano) - Chrysothemis
Ronald Hamilton (tenor) - Aegisth
Wolfgang Schöne (baritone) - Orest
Michael Pavlu (bass) - Orest’s tutor
Janeen Franz (mezzo) - the confidante
Antoinette Faes (soprano) - the train-bearer
Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève/Jean Laforge
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Jeffrey Tate
rec. live, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, 10 March 1990. ADD.
CLAVES CD 50-2514/15 [53’51 + 47’57]

Sacred monsters, be praised! Some time ago I gave up hope of ever hearing an Elektra with these singers on disc, having chalked it up as yet another missed opportunity due to the short-sightedness of record companies. But Claves in publishing this Radio Suisse Romande recording of a live performance has arguably achieved better results than any studio recording with this cast might have produced. My reasoning is simple – both Dame Gwyneth and Leonie Rysanek gave of their best when live, feeding like voracious lionesses on the impulse of the moment. To my ears, Elektra fares best as a work when live too because it feeds from the same impulse, leading it to simultaneously enthral and disgust.

Usually people point to Der Rosenkavalier as the example of Strauss’s love of the soprano voice, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but so too is Elektra: different kinds of soprano for an altogether more illicit and dangerous love affair from his youth, that followed hot on the heals of Salome.

This is unashamedly a set for the devoted – to the singers or to the work: Alain Perroux’s notes enthusiastically document the event with little more than a paragraph on the work itself. No libretto is included. So you better either know the work or find supporting documentation elsewhere, but that’s hardly a problem if one is committed enough to Elektra’s cause.

Dame Gwyneth’s voice has of course long attracted super-critical comment (see the recent review of her Wagner arias disc as an example review). I can understand the reasons why some have those views, but I equally know that many find her way with music so forceful, that after hearing her in a role there is no other to even come close. The point being that she gets absolutely to the core of the character and becomes its total embodiment - and in a role such as this vocal beauty to the exclusion of all else would be to the ruin of the work. I strongly urge you to put any preconceptions aside – this is singing of power (and not just in the decibel sense, that she also was capable of) drive, integrity, logicality and one of the most gripping interpretations I can recall from her. And the voice: I defy you tell me seriously that it’s not in superb shape and absolutely 100% up to the task. The Recognition scene blisters with white-hot intensity from first note to last, but so too does the whole role in this gloriously persuasive assumption.

Leonie Rysanek, also heard here as another age-defying soprano – is one of the few who actually sings the fearsome role of Clytemnestra, as opposed to barking it like so many before her. It’s understandable I feel that Alain Perroux’s recollection of the production is built around these two ‘Dames’ – he does not include Anne Evans in the Dame ‘club’, though by that stage she had every right to be. To be honest, in listening to the performance as we have it, Dame Anne’s performance, although assured and musical, does seem somewhat flatly characterised when placed beside such fearsome stage animals as Jones and Rysanek. I get the same feeling with her Wagner too – there’s something that doesn’t induce that 1000 volt jolt of electricity down the spine every time.

After the women come the men, and they have a tough act to follow even if they are to stamp some authority here. Ronald Hamilton, a tenor new to me, coped gainfully on the evening, though in the long-run remains out-sung by Paul Schöffler (Beecham – see below) and others found elsewhere on disc. Wolfgang Schöne’s Orest is obviously sung by one that has great experience with works such as Berg’s Lulu, and his performance fares well though his careful characterisation.

Jeffrey Tate for whatever reason never really struck me as a significant Straussian before hearing this recording – and although the evidence of one recording is a slim body to readjust such an opinion by, this is an interpretation that encompasses much of what the work requires with its interweaving of savagery and delicacy. The pacing works well too as he takes the one-acter single-mindedly through its course.

Orchestra and chorus turn in rather more than creditable performances, being well drilled but also aware that on stage something special is occurring, giving their performances too that extra spark. The recording is clear enough for a live performance, full-toned and thankfully not over-burdened by stage movements or audience. How wild the audience went at the end though - said to have been the longest standing ovation in the history of the Grand Théâtre.

Marc Bridle’s excellent article on the opera (article) sings the praises of Beecham’s live account from 1947 (Myto 981.H004), and I would go along with this – though there are other fine accounts around too. If one is after a studio Elektra, I would seriously consider the new recording from Semyon Bychkov (Profil Medien PH05022) that has an interesting cast: Felicity Palmer as Clytemnestra and Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis. Only Deborah Polaski’s Elektra palls for me – though some I know have suggested she’s better here than in her assumption for Barenboim (Teldec 4509-99175-2), but I am in no position to comment.

Yes, Bychkov and Beecham might well be versions of choice for particular aspects of the work or the realisation of it. But for me this will be the Elektra that I will return to most often, therein to venerate sacred monsters heard at their best, but also to celebrate remarkable music-making of a work that maintains as firm a grip as ever. Having just submitted my selections for Recordings of the Year 2005, I’ll put this down already for 2006: it simply is great drama that demands to be heard.

Evan Dickerson



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