04 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – ELEKTRA (E. Herlitzius, A. Schwanewilms, W. Meier, R. Pape, F. van Aken; DGG 479 3387)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - ELEKTRA (DGG 479 3387)

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Elektra, Op. 58Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra), Anne Schwanewilms (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra), René Pape (Orest), Frank van Aken (Aegisth), Peter Lobert (Der Pfleger des Orest), Romy Petrick (Die Vertraute), Christiane Hossfeld (Die Schleppträgerin), Simeon Esper (Ein junger Diener), Matthias Henneberg (Ein alter Diener), Nadine Secunde (Die Aufseherin), Constance Heller (1. Magd), Gala El Hadidi (2. Magd), Simone Schröder (3. Magd), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (4. Magd), and Nadja Mchantaf (5. Magd); Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden; Staatskapelle Dresden [Recorded in concert at the Berlin Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, on 28 January 2014; Deutsche Grammophon 479 3387; 2CD, 104:15; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Sadly, celebrations of the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials in 2013 left little doubt about the validity of the oft-repeated laments for the paucity of fully-qualified singers of these composers’ scores. Almost unbelievably considering that the operas of Verdi and Wagner remain the foundations of the repertories of nearly all of the world’s important opera houses, a Violetta, Aida, Brünnhilde, or Isolde to the appropriate manner born is far rarer than an accomplished Alcina or Rodelinda. With extraordinary stylistic versatility ranging from the Wagnerian bombast of the early scores to the Mozartean refinement of the final operas, the music of Richard Strauss might be thought to be a crossroads at which many singers’ techniques find suitable opportunities for success, but a great Marschallin or Färberin is no more common than her Verdian and Wagnerian cousins. In this year in which the sesquicentennial of Strauss’s birth is marked, it is painfully apparent that a plethora of prejudices still limit appreciation of his music among some circles of aficionados. It is argued that the earliest operas still in circulation—Guntram, Salome, and Elektra—are either sophomoric or gargantuan for the sake of impressing beyond their young composer’s means; that the alleged mid-career masterpieces—Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten—are inescapably sentimental or incomprehensible pseudo-psychobabble; and that the wistful, often ironic products of Strauss’s artistic autumn—Capriccio and Intermezzo—are uninspired farces of domestic drudgery. The Strauss who described himself as a first-rate second-rate composer might have agreed with some points of the dismissive criticism to which his operas have been subjected, but something, some fascinating combination of things, keeps these operas on all of the world’s great stages. Jeritza’s Kaiserin, Lehmann’s Färberin, Cebotari’s Salome, Reining’s Ariadne, Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin, Güden’s Daphne, della Casa’s Arabella, and Nilsson’s Elektra are rightly part of the collective operatic consciousness, the equals of Flagstad’s Isolde, Mödl’s Brünnhilde, and Callas’s Violetta, and it is not insignificant that the career of Leonie Rysanek, one of the most important singers of the Twentieth Century, was indelibly shaped by the music of Richard Strauss. At their best, Strauss’s operas possess an irresistible ambiguity that draws in both performers and audiences, and the duality of hedonism and heroism is the essence of the power of Elektra. The decadence of Elektra’s quest for vengeance is uneasily answered by the righteousness of her motives, and she is an unhinged free spirit who plots monstrosities in big-boned waltzes. Unlike Carmen and La bohème, none of Strauss’s operas can survive uniformly poor singing, but in recent years they have proved their resilience during an unmistakable drought of true Strauss singers. Beauty and cleverness are wonderful, but Elektra is a score that demands true voices. Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording, a birthday gift to the composer featuring an orchestra with which his music has long enjoyed a special relationship, is forceful even when it is most flawed, and it recognizes as much in its failures as in its triumphs that great singing is no less vital in Strauss than in bel canto.

Boasting of a century-long association with the composer’s music, Staatskapelle Dresden has an unassailable claim on being the world’s preeminent Strauss orchestra, and in their playing in this performance of Elektra—recorded in concert in the Berlin Philharmonie and committed to disc with sonic clarity that continues DGG’s legacy of technological wizardry—the Staatskapelle’s musicians honor their ensemble’s reputation. The passing years have in no way diminished the celebrated brilliance of the Staatskapelle’s playing, and the levels of accuracy and sheer dedication that the musicians impart in the music of Strauss are unchanged since the days when their efforts were guided by the greatest of Strauss interpreters, Karl Böhm. All sections of the orchestra contribute unfailingly musical readings of their parts, and Strauss’s most astringent harmonies retain tonal beauty that makes them all the more emotionally pungent. Nothing is exploited in pursuit of cheap effects, and the precision of ensemble and clarity in even the most explosive passages are especially remarkable in the context of a recording of a live performance. Christian Thielemann, regarded by many opera lovers as the only true successor to the important Wagner and Strauss conductors of the past, seems to have dutifully absorbed both the gravity and the grandeur of the Staatskapelle’s traditions. Stewarding the orchestra’s sterling playing and the strong singing of the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Maestro Thielemann shapes a performance that offers the soloists a fertile musical garden in which to cultivate a compelling account of Elektra. The strengths of Maestro Thielemann’s musical interpretation are not consistently duplicated in his dramatic momentum, however. Chosen tempi are generally logical, but in those passages in which the conductor’s intervention is required in order to keep the opera’s theatrical fire burning Maestro Thielemann allows energy to wane. This increases the pressure on the singers, and the performance as a whole is fortunate in that the principals take charge when scenes threaten to stall. Were Elektra one of Strauss’s tone poems, Maestro Thielemann’s pacing of it would be little short of perfect, but, being an outrageous beast of an opera, Elektra needs greater attention to balancing musical supremacy with dramatic involvement.

The supporting cast in this performance is reliable without being exceptional. Most notable is the presence of soprano Nadine Secunde as the Overseer. Herself a memorable Chrysothemis in the Boston Symphony performances of Elektra recorded commercially by Philips, Ms. Secunde is as acquainted with Strauss’s music as any singer in this cast. Her familiarity with the score reveals itself in an insightful use of text, and she sings powerfully if occasionally unsteadily. As the quintet of gossiping Maids, Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, and Nadja Mchantaf sing impressively, and their performances are paralleled by the subtly-characterized Young and Old Servants of Simeon Esper and Matthias Henneberg. Romy Petrick and Christiane Hossfeld make much of little as Klytämnestra’s Confidante and Trainbearer. Peter Lobert creates a spirited vignette as Orest’s tutor: his animated performance personifies the ‘ein starker Greis mit blitzenden Augen’ (‘powerful old man with flashing eyes’) described in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto.

​It is unusual for Aegisth to enjoy the services of an acclaimed Siegmund in the prime of his career, but the rôle benefits in this performance from the solid singing of Frank van Aken, whose performance is mostly free from the caricatures to which the part has been subjected by character tenors. Missing, too, are distortions of the vocal line. Like Herod in Salome, Aegisth is a nasty piece of work with few if any redeeming qualities, but the most sinister portrayals are those that avoid the traditional sneering in favor of more alluring tones. There is little true beauty in Mr. van Aken’s singing in this performance, but he phrases Aegisth’s serpentine utterances with pointed insinuation that lends the character credible rather than merely situational creepiness. Particularly in ‘Was hast du in der Stimme? Und was ist in dich gefahren,’ it is refreshing to hear an Aegisth who does not sound stretched to the limits of his resources; and one who does not sound as old as the mythological House of Atreus itself. In the context of the history of interpretations of Aegisth, Mr. van Aken is neither a Set Svanholm nor a Max Lorenz, but he easily assumes a place among the most satisfactory Aegisths on disc.

The most surprising aspect of René Pape’s Orest is that, being the work of a significant singer, it is a performance of no great significance. The music is superbly, indeed almost ideally sung, but Mr. Pape’s Orest sounds little engaged by his long-anticipated reunion with his sisters and decidedly half-hearted in his quest for vengeance. Vocally, Orest’s music scarcely challenges Mr. Pape, and his is one of the most evenly-sung performances of the rôle on disc. Perhaps it is his ease in the music that undermines the dramatic effectiveness of his depiction of the starkly heroic prodigal son twisted by an unrelenting desire for retribution: never heard in Mr. Pape’s expansively-phrased performance is the life-or-death determination of a man who has made peace with the objective of slaying his own mother. Though his firm, resonant voice delivers the music with complete competency, the emotional maelstrom of the Recognition Scene is a disappointingly tepid affair from Mr. Pape’s perspective. The beauty of tone that he invests in crucial exclamations like ‘So haben sie dich darben lassen oder—sie haben dich geschlagen’ is fantastic, but where are the shock and horror? It is not unrealistic to suppose that a loving brother’s resolve to obtain reprisal would be further bolstered by the maltreatment suffered by his sister, but Mr. Pape’s Orest’s awakening to the reality of Elektra’s life since his departure goes for little. Despite his crucial part in the opera’s violent dénouement, Orest has relatively few opportunities to make his mark on a performance, and Mr. Pape mostly leaves his chances to seize the dramatic upper hand from Elektra unrealized. It seems especially ungrateful to find fault with such a fluent, uncommonly attractively-sung performance, but in an opera that reeks of blood in every moment of its duration a bloodless Orest is disfiguring.

Anne Schwanewilms has emerged as one of the finest Strauss sopranos of the new century, her 2002 performance of the title rôle in Die Liebe der Danae in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw having been lauded as one of that venue’s most thrilling Strauss performances and her Metropolitan Opera début as the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten celebrated as a superb piece of singing. Ms. Schwanewilms’s voice is a study in contrasts, the leanness of the sound allying with surprising power. Ms. Schwanewilms seems to have been marginally off her best form at the time of this performance of Elektra, but she contributes a securely-sung Chrysothemis on the whole. Her opening cry of ‘Elektra!’ is strangely chilling, and her voice bristles with apprehension and frustration as she tells her sister of Klytämnestra’s and Aegisth’s colluding. The top B♭s to which Chrysothemis’s line rises as she sings of her desire to flourish as a wife and mother tax Ms. Schwanewilms, but her steadiness in the upper register is appreciable. She brings palpable sadness and unexpected temperament to her voicing of Chrysothemis’s lament for the supposedly-dead Orest, ‘Gestorben in der Fremde! Tot! Gestorben dort in fremden Land, von seinen Pferden erschlagen und geschleift,’ and she conveys bracing trepidation and uncertainty when refusing Elektra’s entreaties to aid her in taking revenge on their mother. Ms. Schwanewilms’s singing grows more heated as the performance progresses, and she ably supplies the four top Bs required of her in the opera’s final minutes. She is not a girlish Chrysothemis, but neither was Leonie Rysanek. Ms. Schwanewilms does not have the ease and resplendence in the upper register that Rysanek brought to Chrysothemis’s music, but her high-octane assumption of the character is a worthy continuation of her great ancestor’s praxis.

As celebrated for her searing performances as Isolde and Sieglinde as for her tormented Kundry and poetic Waltraute, Waltraud Meier is a singer whose voice and career have defied simplistic categorizations of Fach and range. The tremendous technical acumen of her singing notwithstanding, her portraits of some of the most troubled women in opera have often seemed as much lived as sung: once the essence of a character is in her heart, the notes are in the voice. It cannot be denied that there now are signs of wear in the voice, but it also cannot be overlooked that this extraordinary singer dominates this performance with stirringly original journeys through both Klytämnestra’s music and her psyche. From her first entrance, this Klytämnestra is for all her understandable insecurity every inch a queen. An unnatural, unfeeling mother, perhaps, she knows—and knows with practiced mastery how to manipulate—her station in the royal household. Her venom is more potent because she does not spend her time on stage baring her fangs: she treads lightly, and her carefully-placed steps crush the weak in her path. The irony of her insouciant voicing of ‘Und das lass ich frei in meinem Hause lauften’ (‘And I allow that thing [Elektra] to roam free in my house’) is exponentially more effective than the snarling delivery used by many singers. Unusually, there is in this Klytämnestra a palpable sense of her treachery having been born of wronged maternal instincts. For once, she is a credibly wounded woman whose hatred for Agamemnon stemmed from his apparent sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, not an unrepentant harlot whose murder of one husband was motivated by the desire to bed another. Eschewing all of the traditional unmusical sound effects of her rôle except for the bloodcurdling screams when she makes the acquaintance of her resurrected son’s axe, Ms. Meier adopts the unorthodox approach of actually singing Klytämnestra’s music. The voice is strongest at the upper end of the part’s range, but Ms. Meier never cheats or resorts to approximated pitches. There are a few moments in which she might have sacrificed accuracy for steadiness, but she is too musical and has too much respect for the composer and his wishes to compromise. The integrity and specificity with which she enunciates Klytämnestra’s text would be just as apt for portraying Sappho, and, even taking into account her still-magnificent singing, the foremost achievement of her performance is the humanity that she lends to this most clichéd of operatic termagants.

Under the best of circumstances, the most technologically-advanced and meticulously-monitored microphones encounter challenges in the recording of large voices. Hailed as one of today’s most successful exponents of Strauss’s rôles for dramatic soprano, Evelyn Herlitzius possesses the sort of columnar, slightly unwieldy voice that troubles microphones. Unfortunately for such a singer’s recorded legacy, microphones tend to overemphasize vibrato and suggest a measure of unsteadiness that would not be apparent in the ‘open’ acoustics of an opera house or concert hall. Basic physics imparts that the intensity of sound produced increases with the amplitude of a voice, and the most sophisticated engineering—which is certainly what DGG’s recording of this performance employed—can but approximate the actual aural impact of a Hochdramatischer voice. As recorded, Ms. Herlitzius’s voice can sound somewhat ungainly, but this is almost certainly a result of the natural size of the instrument. At any rate, it is of little consequence in a performance of the cumulative quality that Ms. Herlitzius achieves here. Elektra’s opening monologue, ‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein,’ is one of the most formidable entrances for any character in opera: without the benefit of warm-up, Elektra must introduce herself to the audience in nine minutes of concentrated vehemence strewn with top Gs, A♭s, As and B♭s. Ms. Herlitzius’s cries of ‘Agamemnon’ are ferocious in their visceral grief and anger, and she descends to the lower reaches of the music with rounded tone. The climactic top C is not managed without effort, but it is steady and on pitch and illustrative of legitimate emotional release. In her scenes with Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra, Ms. Herlitzius’s Elektra never cedes the emotional advantage, but when Elektra is reunited with the brother she has been told is dead the sentimental gates are thrown open, not just to jubilation at the reunion but also to an eruption of redoubled commitment to avenging her father. The ringing authority of Ms. Herlitzius’s singing in the Recognition Scene is tremendous. Like Ms. Meier, however, she penetrates far beneath the surface of her rôle. Digging deeply into the nuances of Hofmannsthal’s text and the wonders of Strauss’s music in passages like ‘Schleppst du dich hierher in meinen traurigen Winkel, Herold des Unglücks’ and ‘Ich will nicht wissen, wer du bist,’ she uncovers a seldom-glimpsed vulnerability in Elektra. The exhilaration that Ms. Herlitzius conveys in the opera’s final scene is not that of a bloodthirsty creature whose lust for retaliation has been consummated: instead, she is at last a woman fulfilled. Rather than seeming as in many performances that, deprived of her reason for living, she simply ceases to do so, this Elektra’s final act of defiance and of filial duty is death. In an instant, she witnesses the restoration of justice to the only world she knows and, her longing satisfied, returns to the primordial murk from which she emerged. Vocally, Ms. Herlitzius covers her music’s two octaves with vigor and panache, and she strives diligently to create a character who is more maligned than manic and who is discernibly both her father’s and her mother’s daughter.

It is no coincidence that Richard Strauss’s Elektra has been so infrequently recorded during the past quarter-century. Though the opera remains popular in the world’s opera houses, it is a score that demands far greater expenditures of vocal and theatrical capital than it typically receives. This is not a perfect Elektra, but Elektra is an artistic behemoth that scoffs at the very notion of perfection. Of what value is perfection in the telling of a tale of such vastly imperfect people? The grand success of this impeccably-prepared, expertly-executed, and masterfully-recorded performance is the manner in which the cast, especially Evelyn Herlitzius and Waltraud Meier, portray these brutal figures of myth as people rather than cold archetypes. They might be residents of any place or time with an appetite for families with sordid secrets and rotting skeletons in their closets. This is surely what Strauss and Hofmannsthal envisioned, and is this universality not also the very soul of opera?