Are the Agamemnons the most dysfunctional family in opera? In
revenge for Agamemnon's murder/sacrifice of his daughter, his
Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisthus murder him in the bath
and claim the throne. Strauss's opera then opens with Klytämnestra
and Agamemnon's children in disarray: Orestes in exile, Chrysothemis
yearning for a full womanly life free from such blood-stained
horrors and Elektra hell-bent on vengeance and arguably mad.
Elektra first appears skulking outside the royal palace trying to
comprehend Agamemnon's downfall. All her energies, her whole
world, are channelled towards matricide. And this is the
tragedy of Elektra: there is nothing else supporting her
character beyond all-consuming hatred and revenge. Her success
is also her total collapse. In this respect Elektra over-amplifies
human nature, revealing truth, not only in the emptiness
of vengeance but also, arguably, single-mindedness itself.
Have you ever vigorously pursued a goal, attained it and
been left with a hollow feeling?
Archive broadcasts often unearth hidden treasures, and here
we have a great, forgotten soprano in Gerda Lammers. Born
1915, Lammers joined Kassel opera company in 1955. Described
by Regina Resnik as "a large woman, sort of square",
Lammers was at first sight too plain to be the obvious star
lead. Legend has it that Metropolitan Opera manager Rudolf
Bing mistook Lammers for a cleaning lady when she first arrived
But Lammers' Elektra was, according to Lord Harewood, in
a bonus track on this set, "transcendent". She
was a late replacement for an ill Christine Goltz but came
to the Royal Opera knowing
the role well. Lord Harewood recalls Lammers falling down
during rehearsals. The stage-crew rushed forward to help
her but she assured them it was deliberate and part of her
Resnik remembered Lammers’ Elektra as "more innocent, warmer
than most (making) Elektra's revenge seem more justified.
The turmoil was seething inside her. It only came out in
the end". Further, "she made one understand the
drama. Because of her innate sympathy, she actually suggested
that some rapport with her mother might be possible. That
heightened the tension".
Lammers’ metallic soprano is shorn of opulence, being somewhat heady
and hardish, with the text admirably clear. It is hardly
a conventionally beautiful sound but is capable of beauty
and warmth, especially in the ironically chilling scene where
Elektra promises the hapless Chrysothemis sisterly affection
in return for help in murdering their mother! The listener
is aware of a narrow, not unpleasing, vibrato in Lammers’ opening
lines which together with a dark colouring underlines the
raddled and unbalanced nature of Elektra’s character. Yet
this vibrato reduces considerably as the voice opens upwards: “…rings
um dein Grab”. Overall, the voice is well placed for Elektra.
It would be easy to write an essay about Elektra's opening
Monologue here, such is the detail and sweep of drama unearthed
Lammers and Kempe. Listen to how the music slows and settles
into a deep moan from the tubas before Elektra sings "Agamemnon!
Agamemnon!" in her opening monologue. And Lammers’ succinct
response gives natural and intelligent shape to both the
words and the drama. She rings out "Agamemnon! Vater!" and
then powers down so that "..zeig dich deinem Kind!" softens
and slowly melds into the most gorgeous response from the
violins, so lyrical under Kempe. Next hear how Lammers’ tone
is edged with viciousness, almost shrewish, as she sings
how Elektra will slaughter the royal horses and dogs at her
father's grave. Then she lightens and lilts rhythms with
obvious care, joining in the orchestra’s joyous anticipatory
The rest of the cast are fine but have been bettered elsewhere.
Milinkovic is a notable Erda for Keilberth in the recent
Siegfried set but misses the wretched intensity of Varnay
(Böhm DVD) or Rysanek despite theatrical moans and groans.
This Klytämnestra sings beautifully enough but is hardly
the tormented walking corpse. Some top notes are effortful
for Müller-Bütow's Chrysothemis, as Michael Kennedy points
out in the booklet notes, but she does convey the slightly
hysterical edge to the character. Otakar Kraus is a warm
and emotional Orestes: more loving brother than impervious
In the final scene I was most interested in how Kempe markedly
drops both tempo and temperature as Elektra sings "Can I not
hear it? / Not hear the music? / It comes from myself",
the ensuing waltz not mad, but loving and tender, emphasising
the interior drama and the light soon to be ended. The orchestra
then builds a frenzy towards a scream from the trumpets following "… vir
Vollbringenden" that almost rival the Vienna Philharmonic
The recorded sound is mostly very good with voices not too
far forward and orchestral detail surprisingly clear for
such an old
recording. Crescendi would obviously have more impact in
the flesh and the somewhat recessed timps and brass add to
the overall transparency. Unfortunately the sound is seriously
flawed by a major dropout in the crucial final moments just
before Elektra sings "Be silent and dance ..." with
weight and colour draining out of the acoustic. Lammers'
turmoil, that Resnik said came out so strongly in this tragic
culmination of Strauss’s incredible opera, is thereby compromised.
The booklet contains a libretto with English translation and an informative
essay which sensibly focuses on the performance and artists.
This set will happily sit alongside Mitropoulos (1957 Orfeo) and Beecham
(1947 Myto) as a fine historic Elektra. Every opera
collection should have several Elektras! For unhinged
mixtures of passion, power, and the unleashing of both the
neurotic and psychotic within extraordinary, almost overpowering,
recorded sound I keep returning to Sinopoli.
An endnote: critic Martin Bernheimer points out in his Opera magazine
article on Lammers that her Elektra never prefigured an international
career or many recordings. Lammers was engaged for guest
appearances in some major houses but remained based in Kassel,
where she died, almost unreported in January 1993.
(I wish to thank Martin Bernheimer for kind permission to use some
facts from his article on Gerda Lammers which was published
in the November 2005 edition of Opera.)