Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra - music drama in one act (1908)
Eva Marton (soprano) - Elektra
Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo) - Klytemnestra
Cheryl Studer (soprano) - Chrysothemis
Hermann Winkler (tenor) - Aegisth
Bernd Weikl (baritone) - Orestes
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. Herkulessaal, Munich, 2-10 January 1990
Includes extra CDR with synopsis and libretto with translation
EMI CLASSICS 6407792 [53.35 + 48.32]

A contemporary cartoon shows Strauss trying to gain admission to a performance of Rosenkavalier with a young lady on each arm insisting that if his girlfriends can’t attend then he won’t either. One young lady is a floozy decked in veils; the other a double-chinned, thick set woman with mad eyes. They are of course Salome and Elektra and the caricature of the latter plays on a popular perception of Strauss’s opera as heavy, dissonant and, frankly, barking. Elektra’s orchestration does feature malevolent orchestral tuttis, kitsch barbarism for Klytemnestra’s entrance and skirts towards atonalism as Elektra confronts her twisted mother. But Strauss’s score is dominated by quieter passages of great beauty and overt Romanticism. Try the subtly dropping violin lines as Elektra realises she is on her own and scrabbles for the axe to kill Klytemnestra herself (CD 2, tr.5 00:58) or the searing ecstasy about “Dann sterb’ ich seliger als ich gelebt” as Elektra realises her beloved Orestes has in fact returned to do the job for her.

The caricature of insane frump is also wrong. Elektra first appears skulking outside the royal palace trying to comprehend Agamemnon's murder by Klytemnestra and Aegisth. Like the Fifth Maid in the opening prologue, we can sympathise with Elektra’s madness through Klytemnestra’s brutal take-over and resulting regime. Now alone, 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 self-consuming hatred. The role of lover, wife and mother are all pushed aside for vengeance. Her success is also her total collapse as nothing remains to support her character. In this respect Elektra over-amplifies human nature, revealing truth, not only in the emptiness of revenge but also, arguably, single-mindedness itself. Have you ever vigorously pursued a goal, attained it and been left with a hollow feeling?

Orchestral beauty is clear through Wolfgang Sawallisch’s conducting where the focus is swiftness, lyricism and clarity. Colours are teased out, never crudely over-egged, but can still have tremendous impact: witness the cymbal as Elektra staggers to death. Crescendi are not a series of meaningless rising seismic shocks but graduated with dramatic purpose. For instance, the opening chords and Agamemnon’s militaristic motif which caps Elektra’s opening monologue are held in check. Thereby Strauss’s huge 111 piece orchestra has greater comparative power later on. And Sawallisch’s transparent approach is abetted by the engineers who keep the voices forward in a pleasingly open orchestral sound-stage.

Listeners may approach Eve Marton’s Elektra with trepidation after her disastrously unsteady Brünnhilde, which all but sank Haitink’s Götterdämmerung, also recorded in Munich by EMI. Happily, here Marton is firm with a youthful timbre to her obviously powerful soprano voice. Her core dark vocal colouring really suits Elektra’s character and she clearly evokes Elektra’s internalised fury. Ewan McCormick reviewing a previous issue of this recording for MusicWeb International, found Marton’s portrayal “generally unimaginative” and notes the lack of sprung rhythms as Elektra dances towards the end of her opening monologue. I missed the ravishing colours and inward singing Christine Brewer (Telarc) and Alessandra Marc (Brilliant Classics) bring to the Recognition scene. However there is enough of Elektra’s single-minded pursuit of revenge dramatized here to satisfy. Marton’s building tension as she teases the meaning of Klytemnestra’s blood-soaked nightmares is fearsome. You almost feel pity for Klytemnestra, particularly as Marjana Lipovsek eschews ham horror in favour of crumbling regal dignity and desperation.

Chrysothemis is sung by American Cheryl Studer who, like Marton, sings with clear diction but with silvery tones that are a fine foil to her deranged sister. The tremulousness that creeps into Studer’s singing gives this Chrysothemis an hysterical edge. Bernd Weikl is a surprisingly youthful Orestes. Here a young man is pushed by fate and duty towards matricide, contrasted with Hans Hotter (Capriccio) who is an implacable arm of justice.

This is a sensible and impressive performance with no significant weak links. But Elektra is, after all, also saturated with dark psychology, a roller-coaster of desires and an orchestral score that pushes towards atonality through hyper-Romanticism. For a controversial recording that will leave you goggling at Strauss’s sheer audacity turn to Sinopoli and the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded with stunning impact by DG, and now an unmissable super-budget reissue on Brilliant Classics.

For a survey of Elektra on CD visit:

David Harbin

This is a sensible and impressive performance with no significant weak links.