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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
(Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, based on the classic drama Electra by Sophocles)
Elektra - Eva Marton (soprano)
Chrysothemis - Cheryl Studer (soprano)
Klytämnestra - Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo)
Aegisth - Hermann Winkler (tenor)
Orest - Bernd Weikl (baritone)
Orestes' Tutor - Kurt Moll (bass)
The Confidante - Victoria Wheeler (soprano)
The Train-bearer - Dorothea Geipel (soprano)
A young serving man - Ulrich Ress (tenor)
An old serving man - Alfred Kuhn (bass)
The Overseer - Carmen Anhorn (soprano)
1st serving woman - Daphne Evangelatos (alto)
2nd serving woman - Shirley Close (mezzo)
3rd serving woman - Birgit Calm(mezzo)
4th serving woman - Julie Faulkner (soprano)
5th serving woman - Caroline Maria Petrig (soprano)
Bavarian Radio Choir/Gustaf Fjökvist
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. January 1990, Herkulessaal, Munich.
EMI CLASSICS 5091902 [53:35 + 48:32]
Experience Classicsonline

The virtue of this reissued 1990 set of Strauss’s Elektra lies in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s practised pacing of the score. With experience borne of long years in the best German Kapellmeister tradition each individual section and encounter in the drama is placed within the overall span of the music. The BRSO play superbly and are well caught in the resonant acoustic of the Herkulessaal in Munich.

With his vocal collaborators, however, Sawallisch has more of a mixed bag. Eva Marton was undoubtedly a powerful Elektra in the theatre, but on disc her rather unwieldy voice does not lend itself to the role’s more lyrical moments and she suffers from intonation problems in some of the higher-lying passages. She seems unable to project Elektra’s emotions with much subtlety; thus the opening monologue goes for little in comparison to performances by Nilsson, Borkh and others, who are really adept at portraying Elektra’s grief, loneliness and ultimate anger. In the monologue’s closing stages, which should be wildly exultant, Marton is heavy and lumpen. She is content merely to sing her phrases, with little sense of meaning or inflection, in her subsequent encounter with Chrysothemis; although to be fair her scene with Klytamnestra shows a marginal improvement in terms of dramatic response to the situation. The Recognition Scene with Orest (the dependable Bernd Weikl), which can be the emotional high point of the opera, here goes for relatively little due to Marton’s inability to soften her voice sufficiently for the more lyrical phrases. By contrast Sawallisch creates an orchestral texture of exemplary warmth and clarity.

Cheryl Studer rather seems to have disappeared from the limelight of late but she was a favourite on record around this time. She sings a suitably excitable Chrysothemis to contrast with Marton’s monolithic Elektra. Her first solo brings us the freedom and ecstasy we have missed from Marton’s performance; her bright soprano, with its fast tremolo sounding not unlike Marie Collier’s on the Solti set, creates a vivid picture of a repressed, quasi-hysterical young woman desperate to escape from the horrors of the royal household. She is equally effective in her later scene with Elektra as her sister tries to persuade her to take on the task of killing Klytamnestra and Aegisthus, depicting well Chrysothemis’s revulsion at what is being asked of her.

As Klytamnestra, Lipovsek gives a vivid portrayal of a once-regal character torn by guilt and fear. Her scene with Elektra which forms the opera’s centrepiece is effective enough, with due attention given to characterisation. And yet anyone who has heard the likes of Astrid Varnay in the part will know that there is an extra element of drama to be got from the role; Lipovsek seems slightly disengaged and the scene therefore lacks the overwhelming sense of dread and tension of some performances. The supporting cast is generally excellent including effective cameos from the likes of Hermann Winkler and Kurt Moll.

However good the supporting cast and the orchestral contribution, in the last analysis Elektra stands or falls by the performances of the three main female protagonists. This tripartite portrayal of mounting hysteria remains one of Strauss’s – and Hoffmansthal’s – most memorable creations. For all the virtues of Sawallisch’s conducting, and despite capable performances by Studer and Lipovsek, Eva Marton’s generally unimaginative Elektra lets the set down badly. In the opera house this would have been a good repertoire performance of Strauss’s opera; for repeated listening on disc something a bit more special is needed.

The set comes with notes and synopsis but no libretto, although this is downloadable via the EMI Classics website.

Ewan McCormick
Marton’s generally unimaginative Elektra lets the set down badly ... see Full Review


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