Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra opera in one act (1909)
Elektra – Iréne Theorin (soprano)
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier (soprano)
Chrysothemis – Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano)
Orest – René Pape (bass)
Aegisth – Robert Gambill (tenor)
Tutor – Oliver Zwarg (baritone)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniele Gatti
Production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff
rec. live, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival, 2010
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo, DD 5.1
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 559 [109:00]

Strauss’s unyielding expressionist masterpiece has yielded a huge variety of interpretations in its 102-year performance history. The most successful have all gone along the less-is-more principle. The same epithet could apply to the best work of director Nikolaus Lehnhoff whose finest productions have stripped bare the work in question to present it at its most elemental. Think, for example, of the Glyndebourne Tristan or his Zurich Meistersinger. So entrusting Lehnhoff with the 2010 Salzburg production of Elektra sounds like a match made in heaven and, broadly speaking, it is. Lehnhoff sets the action against bare walls peppered with window holes, suggesting the exterior of the palace at Mycenae, but all perspectives are skewed. The walls rise out of the ground at angles of about 30° and the ground slopes disorientatingly, underlining the impression of a sick, twisted world skewed beyond normal recognition. The various windows are used for characters to look out of and comment on the action: we see Klytämnestra peering out of several before she finally appears on the ground and, most effectively, the maids of the first scene squat in them to spit out their vitriolic comments. They look for all the world like the flies and bluebottles that Elektra accuses them of being. The ground contains various craters from which the “good” characters – Elektra, Orest, the Fifth Maid, for example – emerge onto the scene while the others – Chrysothemis, Klytämnestra and Aegisth – appear from the side. Elektra also uses some of them as pits in which to hide and scrabble. The bareness of the action means that attention is entirely focused on the music and acting, which is all to the good. Furthermore, nothing gets in the way and so the mind is inexorably drawn to focus more on what you hear.

It is a good job, then, that what you hear is very good indeed. Iréne Theorin’s Elektra towers over the whole work. She carries herself with dignity and restraint at her first entrance, reminding us that she is a King’s daughter and that her experience has not entirely degraded her. We are left in no doubt, though, that she has been consumed by the project she has set herself: her face is made up to be deliberately pale, ossified, as you can see from the cover photograph. In addition, her death throes begin as soon as Aegisth has been murdered so that there is no final dance of frenzy, just steady, unstoppable decay unto death. Vocally her performance is a marvel. Its secret is the slow burn: her opening monologue unfolds subtly, almost gently so that plenty is left in reserve for what comes later, making those scenes all the more powerful when they arrive. Her voice is not naturally a warm one – see her Bayreuth Isolde for proof of that – and she uses its icy quality to accentuate her character’s otherness. She melts for the recognition scene, but there is an air of distance even here, highlighting both her tragedy and the inevitability of her final fate. She is matched by a Klytämnestra of terrifying power in Waltraud Meier. As with any Meier performance, it is impossible to take your eyes off her for any moment that she is on screen. Her Klytämnestra is hysterical, paranoid and fearful, but never a caricature, always believable even as she quivers on the edge of madness. She makes her voice shrill and cold to fulfil the role, but her identification with the character is total and her assumption is one of the finest I have seen on screen. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Chrysothemis isn’t quite as towering as the other women, but she plays up the difference of the character well. While Elektra dominates the stage this Chrysothemis is always seeking a way out, searching the side walls for an exit. Westbroek is feminine and sympathetic where her sister seems carved from granite and you never have any doubt that her longing for motherhood is real, as is her horror at her sister’s fate. René Pape’s Orest is outstanding too. He sings with restrained power, exuding elevated dignity with every phrase, injecting an element of rounded humanity into this horrific family story. The sheer beauty of his voice, together with his excellent acting, makes his duet with Elektra one of the highlights of the disc. Robert Gambill makes the most of Aegisth, though it’s worth noting that, while his baritonal tenor sheds wonderful light on some roles, his dark sound glosses over Strauss’s (intentionally) uncomfortably high writing for this weedy and unpleasant character.

Every bit as good as the singing – indeed even finer in places – is the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. Again and again details in the playing, which come across with ear-opening clarity in 5.1 surround, made me sit up and take notice, drawing attention to Strauss’s unbeatable orchestration and unequalled gift for painting words in sound. Gatti’s direction is strong, though he seems to play it for the almost atomic power of the big climaxes, especially the very beginning and end, so that very occasionally the sense of the long view isn’t quite sustained. This is no reason to avoid this film, though. It is as good a staged Elektra as you are likely to find, easily trumping Kupfer’s washed-out Vienna production, despite the excellent Klytämnestra of Brigitte Fassbaender and Abbado’s direction of the VPO. The picture quality and camera-work of the Salzburg crew is excellent and the performance is unashamedly realised for film: there is no applause and not even a hint of an audience, just credits to an atmospheric background at the beginning and end of the opera. It would have been good to have some extras, though; none are given.

Highly as I rate this, my top Elektra on DVD is still Götz Friedrich’s film on DG, starring Leonie Rysanek and Astrid Varnay and conducted by Karl Böhm. The claustrophobic doom of the production and the excellence of the performances make me identify with this work like no other production, but if it’s a staged version you’re after then you can turn with confidence to Lehnhoff and Salzburg. Incidentally, the last five minutes contain an arresting coup-de-théâtre which I won’t give away here but the photographs in the booklet will, so save yourself from the spoiler and watch the DVD before you browse the booklet.

Simon Thompson

It is as good a staged Elektra as you are likely to find.