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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra - opera in one act, op. 58 (1909)
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Elektra
Regina Resnik (mezzo) – Klytämnestra
Leonie Rysanek (soprano) – Chrysothemis
Eberhard Wächter (baritone) – Orest
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) – Aegisth
Frederick Guthrie (bass) – Tutor
Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Karl Böhm
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 16 December 1965. Mono
ORFEO C8861421 [60:31+38:09]

Orfeo’s Wiener Staatstoper Live series doesn’t always capture recordings that are genuinely interesting or historic; see their distinctly mediocre Ernani as proof of that. On the other hand, the performance captured here has a genuine claim to be historic because it captures what was, in effect, Birgit Nilsson’s first foray into the role of Elektra. True: she had, as the notes point out, sung the role in Stockholm beforehand, but that was mainly as a try-out for taking it to Vienna. What we have here is that very first Viennese night. It’s thrilling, not just as a historical document, but also as brilliant music-making.

Nilsson’s assumption of the title role is a thing of wonder. There is extraordinary freshness to both her singing and her articulation of the words. It's full of the thrill of discovery of a role that was to become so key for her career, and infinitely preferable to her — admittedly still impressive — singing for Levine a decade and a half later, and even to the precision of her studio recording for Solti. Listen, for example, to how she mocks Chrysothemis or the delicious way she plays with her mother during Klytämnestra’s scene, before demanding her death in some of the most viscerally thrilling singing you’ll hear. She gives a wonderful gasp of delight at the beginning of the recognition scene and shows delicious scorn in her scene with Aegisthus. Throughout, she rides the tidal wave of the orchestra as though she were drawing inspiration from it rather than being intimidated by it. The clarity of her tone is sensational, never showing the slightest sign of tiring.

The supporting cast is every bit as exciting. Leonie Rysanek sings Chrysothemis with beauty and a great deal of pathos, but there is real desperation to her desire for children, culminating in some genuinely moving sobs. She then sounds properly elated after the murders, before a note of poignancy enters her voice at the very end. Regina Resnik’s Klytämnestra is to be preferred over her studio recording with Solti. There is a darkness, an almost sultry quality to the voice, which makes her Klytämnestra much more interesting than usual. It is full of not only weariness but also beauty, and even a hint of danger. The description of her nightmare is hair-raising, partly because it is so restrained. It’s wonderful to have a genuine heldentenor Aegisthus, and it’s not difficult to remember that Windgassen was singing Siegfried and Tristan for Böhm at Bayreuth at the same time that he set down this uniquely passionate Aegisth. Only Wächter is a little disappointing, sounding pale and lacking in confidence compared to the company with whom he shares the stage. Perhaps he was having an off night.

There is a cutting edge of violence to Böhm’s reading of the score, much more so than in his famous 1960 reading from Dresden. You get it right from those opening chords, in fact: full-on, bursting with strength, but also clipped and quick to subside. He builds the tension in the key transition passages with extraordinary skill, nowhere more so than in the passage which accompanies the approach of Klytämnestra’s procession, and he whips the orchestra up into a frenzy during the final dance. He observes the theatrical cuts for which he was notorious, but he generates so much electricity in recompense that I’m prepared to forgive him.

The Vienna orchestra play for him like men possessed, fully buying into Böhm’s vision. The various solos and spotlights come out with an elegance and delicacy that belies the radio sound. While no mono recording can ever hope to capture the full gamut of Strauss’s breathtaking orchestration, the engineers do a pretty good job with this one, despite its limitations.

When you have the likes of Gerhard Unger and Gundula Janowitz buried away in the cast of servants, you know you have a class act on your hands. This is a great release for the Strauss centenary, and one to be enjoyed as an essential adjunct to the other Elektras from Böhm and Nilsson.

Simon Thompson

Previous review:

Other reading
Marc Bridle's Elektra survey
Goran Forsling's Birgit Nilsson appreciation