When I first encountered Richard Strauss’ Elektra as a teenager I found the music almost unbearably harsh. The more I listen to it the more erroneous that judgement seems. It has its “tough” moments to be sure. How could an opera about Elektra not? But it is also full of lush romanticism and there are some really quite lovely passages. In the 2010 Salzburg Festival recording Daniele Gatti explores both sides of the music in a rather thrilling reading of the score aided and abetted by the Wiener Philharmoniker and a pretty much ideal cast.
Elektra is an opera about obsession; Elektra and Orest’s obsession with revenge. Klytemnestra’s obsession with her own demons. Only Chrysothemis, who longs for a normal life, stands somewhat apart from this world of mental torture. Thuis is the aspect of the work that director Nikolaus Lehnhoff chooses to emphasise. Virtually the whole drama is played out in an askew grey cube with some holes in the floor and “windows” at which characters sometimes appear. It’s bleak and focusses the attention on the actors; above all on Elektra herself. Costumes are a sort of “nightmare 1950s” and make up quite extreme all reflecting a certain disconnection from reality. The element of alienation is further emphasised by video director Thomas Grimm’s heavy use of close ups which, for once, seems the right way to go. On the odd occasion that Lehnhoff has somethinmg to show us he does pull back to let us see it but mostly we get a claustrophobic concentration on the protaganists. Lehnhoff does pull off a quite spectacular finale though. You’ll have to watch it to see.
I said earlier the cast is near ideal and it is. Iréne Theorin is a superb Elektra. She sings powerfully without shrieking and acts with a terrifying intensity. Chrysothemis is the always estimable Eva-Maria Westbroek who sings beautifully and really does convey the impression of being the one element of near sanity in this whole tortured mess. Waltraud Meier is a brilliant choice as Klytemnestra. She’s mature enough for the role but still all there vocally and sings a fully characterised interpretation without the “voice in terminal decline” quality that seems to be the norm for this role. And if three singers who can sing Isolde in one production isn’t riches enough we get René Pape as Oreste. This is one of the best performances of this role I’ve seen and is every bit as good as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the Friedrich film. The interplay between the characters also works well. The big scene between mother and daughter is suitably creepy and the recognition scene between brother and sister is really intense. It’s all very carefully thought out and well directed.
The Blu-ray version of the recording is very good. The picture is 1080i and the sound options are PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio. The surround sound is top notch with lots of clarity and excellent balance. There are no extras which is unfortunate, especially as the work is only 109 minutes long. The booklet does contain a very short note by Lehnhoff on the production and a longer essay on the origins of the piece by Richard Eckstein. There atre German, English, French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese subtitles.
Dramatically and musically this is as good as the Friedrich film and is, of course, technically vastly superior. It may well be the current first choice for a video recording of this work. ETA: Patrice Chéreau’s 2013 Aix-en-Provence production is also very fine.