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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra - music drama in one act (1908)
Gerda Lammers (soprano) ... Elektra
Hedwig Müller-Bütow (soprano) ... Chrysothemis
Georgine von Milinkovic (mezzo) ... Klytämnestra
Edgar Evans (tenor) ... Aegisthus
Otakar Kraus (baritone) ... Orestes
David Kelly  ... Der Pfleger des Orest
Phyllis Simons … Die Vertraute
Leah Roberts … Die Schleppträgerin
Dermot Troy … Ein junger Diener
Charles Morris … Ein alter Diener
June Grant … Die Aufseherin
Lauris Elms; Noreen Berry; Josephine Veasey; Marie Collier; Jeannette Sinclair … fünf Mägde
The Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 29 May 1958
Includes bonus track: Lord Harewood in conversation with Roger Beardsley

Are the Agamemnons the most dysfunctional family in opera? In revenge for Agamemnon's murder/sacrifice of his daughter, his wife 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 in Berlin 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 for rehearsals.
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 performance.
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 by 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 dance.
The rest of the cast are fine but have been bettered elsewhere. Milinkovic is a notable Erda for Keilberth in the recent Testament 1955 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 soldier.
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 under Sinopoli.
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.)
David Harbin


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