Culture Magazine

From the Met Archives: Elektra

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
I'm hoping to get my hands on the DVDs of recent Elektra productions, but this one is at least recently released: included in the Levine anniversary set from the Met is an Elektra from a 1994 Met telecast. So far the DVD is only available as part of this boxed set, but the packaging, as well as fiscal sense, would seem to indicate that an individual release may be forthcoming. The sound and picture quality is perhaps not up to digital-everything standards, but it's significantly better than that of tapes made from the telecast. (And there's much virtue in that "perhaps"; my television set was rescued from the fate of being thrown away; it still functions perfectly well, most of the time. Nothing about it, however, is high definition.) Otto Schenk's production highlights the size of the Met's stage more than the events and emotions of Strauss's opera, I'm afraid. His palace is washed in a spectrum of colors from sickly yellowish-green to sickly greenish-yellow, which is echoed in the maidservants' costumes (okay.) Everyone else gets robes left over from a Sunday School play, except Elektra, in black. With a few happy exceptions, though (I did find the death dance chilling) it was fairly unexciting. This being Elektra, the music makes up for it.
Here, James Levine leads the Met orchestra in a reading of Strauss's score which was, literally for me, hair-raising. Brigitte Fassbaender's Klytemnaestra and Deborah Voigt's Chrysothemis are both performances which it's great to find preserved. And still, the opera finds its anchor in the Elektra of Hildegard Behrens. Behrens made Elektra--half-mad and yet less deluded than those around her--terrifyingly credible. Ordinarily I would deplore the habit of focusing the camera on one singer while another is singing... but to watch Behrens reacting to Fassbaender is mesmerizing. Fassbaender was given a costume that looked like something out of King Solomon's Mines, but she dripped with venom, and radiated terror. The relationship of the two sisters is also poignantly realized by Behrens and Voigt. Otto Schenk's production doesn't really help, dictating that Chrysothemis do a lot of standing around. Fortunately, Voigt is a fine actress (and, my gosh, that glorious sound!) and she and Behrens portrayed a relationship that is clearly loving, even when the sisters are frustrated by or uncomprehending of the other's actions. It is no small thing, I think, to make Chrysothemis sympathetic when the audience is so caught up in Elektra's fierce indictment of inaction. Voigt did this admirably, and her "Ich kann nicht sitzen" was lush. I think the impression that Behrens was actually standing on Voigt, arced over her like a bow, during her attempt to persuade her to slay Aegisth, must have been an illusion of the staging and filming, but it was an exciting one.
Donald McIntyre is a nobly-sung Orest, who reacts movingly to his sister's plight. James King (!) is Aegisth, past his vocal prime but with undeniable presence, and still-unmistakable timbre. The night belonged to the women, though. And to the orchestra, which thudded and screeched and sobbed and created sounds that crept unpleasantly down my spine. This review is incoherent enough as it is, but let me come back to Behrens, if only to register my awe. She was mesmerizing, her handling of text impeccable and her use of vocal coloring thrilling. So complete was her assumption of the role that it came as a bit of a shock to me to register her visible exhaustion at the curtain calls, when she was deservedly overwhelmed with applause. Here is Behrens' opening monolog (the quality of the sound and picture on the DVD is an improvement on the below.)

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