GHCD 2285/86 – ELEKTRA – Strauss – Varnay – Reiner – Metropolitan Opera – 1952

Metropolitan Opera, Chorus & Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, ASTRID VARNAY, ELISABETH HÖNGEN, WALBURGA WEGNER, PAUL SCHÖFFLER ,SET SVANHOLM, Act I & Act III excerpts Varnay, Stevens, Conner

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MusicWeb Monday August 23 04

An issue most recommendable for Varnay and Reiner enthusiasts and those who glory in Strauss’ neo-modernist period …

It is said that the best theatre depends on a plot based on sex or violence. So it is in opera with perhaps a more frequent diversion into humour … albeit with a caustic tongue as found in Figaro and Falstaff. With Elektra opera reaches a nadir of violence in the plot and Strauss’s apotheosis of musical modernism. There is an undercurrent of sex in that Klytämnestra has killed her husband Agamemnon so as to consort with her lover. In the classical story by Sophocles, Agamemnon hadn’t been particularly virtuous either. He paraded his own infidelity with Cassandra in his wife’s face and slaughtered their daughter to appease the deities he had offended. In his libretto for Elektra Hofmannsthal ignores any idea of mitigation of Klytämnestra’s actions and paints her as a harridan intent on demeaning Elektra and killing her brother Orestes. Meanwhile Elektra, reduced to a wretched condition, plots to kill her mother and when Orestes returns he does so. Elektra dies avenged if mentally deranged.

As Richard Caniell notes in the usual detailed Guild booklet, the opera was termed by one critic as ‘two hours spent in hell’. Not quite two hours but nearly hell. The strident orchestral dissonances come as near to atonality and modernism as any of the composer’s other works including Salome of four years earlier. As my review of Reiner’s conducting of Salome (Guild 2230-31) indicates the conductor’s grasp of this idiom is apparent. Guild seems enamoured of the idiom and this opera. This Elektra issue follows that of a performance of the work conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos on Christmas Day, of all days, 1949. (review). That performance also featured Astrid Varnay in the title role. My own introduction to the work came with John Culshaw’s production for Decca with Birgit Nilsson as a vocally secure and fearsome Elektra. It is not by error or perversity that that I put Culshaw’s name before that of Solti. It was the encompassing of the violence in the music in a Sonic Stage production that made the effect totally overwhelming. Whilst allowing for its earlier mono recording compared to the Decca, this issue falls well short in comparison. Perhaps more importantly Reiner does not manage the impact achieved by Mitropoulos on the earlier Guild recording. As I noted in my review of that recording Astrid Varnay was to the hoch dramatisch fach what Callas was to the bel canto. Her characterisation and involvement are superb but the listener has to accept that the odd curdled note goes with the territory. That being said Varnay is acceptably steady here. Whilst lacking the steely security of Nilsson’s attack the extra colours in Varnay’s voice are welcome, particularly in the recognition scene when Orestes returns (CD 2 tr. 4). As Orestes Paul Schöffler characterises well with resonant tone. The Klytämnestra of Elisabeth Höngen does not impress me whilst Walburga Wegner as Chrysothemis just about passes muster.

Richard Caniell lists eleven operas conducted by Reiner during his four seasons at the Met before his departure to take over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I am sorry that one of these other works was not chosen by Guild to illustrate the conductor’s fine grasp of an operatic score outside this genre. As it is this Elektra shows us nothing of his qualities not illustrated by the earlier Salome. Further, as I have indicated, Mitropoulos does Elektra better. I do not know the singing cast but I would have preferred to hear Reiner’s Falstaff say. This is particularly so as the appendix here of excerpts from acts one and three of Der Rosenkavalier exhibit a welcome and contrasting lightness of touch from the conductor in this more lyrical music. Caniell is frank about the sound limitations of these tracks (CD 2 trs. 14-20). They are nonetheless welcome for Varnay’s warm Marschallin and Risë Stevens vibrantly ardent Octavian. Despite the sonic limitations these tracks are a compensation for the minutes of hell that is Elektra and are impressive for Reiner’s pacing of the lovely poignant and lyrical Act 1 scene. Otherwise this is an issue most recommendable for Varnay and Reiner enthusiasts and those who glory in Strauss’ neo-modernist period.
Robert J Farr

Classics Today Saturday August 07 08

There may be tidier performances of Elektra, and many have a stronger Chrysothemis (and/or Klytemnestra), but none I’ve ever heard has left me as drained–that is, satisfied–as this one, from a 1952 Met broadcast. Just to get rid of the problems first: Elizabeth Höngen, only 46 at the time, sounds 10 years older as Klytemnestra, but she is properly colorful and nuts, nonetheless. And Walburga Wagner, if that really was her name, has one of those odd, rapid-vibrato voices that irritate immediately and get worse with repeated listenings. But again, she sounds very much in the spirit of desperation.

Frankly, Fritz Reiner rescues both singers: In the Klytemnestra confrontation, the eerie stillness in the orchestra and the tense, slow pacing that comes when the Queen begins to tell Elektra about her trouble sleeping makes the scene the horror show it should be. And Reiner also practically manages to use Wagner’s wiry vibrato and unimpressive sound to underline her girlish weakness. Paul Schoeffler is a very good Orestes in the context of this performance–the vengeful prodigal son–but Set Svanholm sounds as if he’s walking through Aegisth just to get home early. But in addition to Reiner’s abovementioned insights, he keeps the tension so high that the tortured situation rarely has seemed so present and relentless. He slows down uncomfortably when Aegisth enters, keeping us waiting for the sick scene to follow and underpinning the grotesque drunken merriness of his music, and even Elektra’s dance is as labored as her thinking. And the notion that the Met Orchestra was a bad band is debunked here–it sounds gloriously possessed.

At the performance’s center, of course, is Astrid Varnay’s Elektra. The voice, never conventionally beautiful, nonetheless was remarkably expressive. In her opening monologue there is epic sadness in the way she repeats “Agamemnon”, and the build-up from there is remarkable in its obsessiveness. The sneer in her voice when addressing her mother is almost visible, and she’s wonderfully cajoling in a manic sort of way when she first tries to seduce her sister into helping her; the pleading a moment later has real feeling. The scene with Orestes is grand. Whatever she’s doing, the voice is like a supporting pillar–unwavering, reliable, fiercely strong–without which the rest of the house would fall. If there is an all-around greater Elektra on disc, I haven’t heard her.

The Rosenkavalier excerpts (from a year later, February, 1953) are a nice anomaly; it’s interesting to hear Varnay lady-ing it up. Still magnificently expressive, it’s hardly what we think of when the Marschallin comes to mind, but it’s still a highly creditable portrayal. Rise Stevens’ Octavian is good; Nadine Connor’s Sophie is better. Reiner again is wise. The broadcast sound for the Elektra is as good as possible, the Rosenkavalier less so. Don’t miss this Elektra. [7/30/2004]
Robert Levine