, May 2011
The postwar recordings by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879–1961) achieved a plateau in 1947, a banner year for his work in the EMI studios. In the month of October 1947, Beecham dedicated his efforts to the music of Richard Strauss, with Ariadne auf Naxos, 13–15; and with Elektra, 27–29, each with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. For Elektra (1909), Strauss took the tragedy of Sophocles’ Oresteia and exploited its themes of blood-lust and revenge as vehicles for some of the most dissonant music he ever composed. Schumann-Heink, the original Clytemnestra in Dresden, commented that “We have lived and reached the furthest boundary in dramatic writing for the voice with Wagner. But Richard Strauss goes beyond him. His singing voices are lost. We have come to a full stop. I believe Strauss himself sees it.”
For his recording of Elektra’s final scene, Beecham has principals from the Vienna State Opera, who happened to be appearing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Erna Schlueter (1904–1969) projects lyrical albeit disturbed Elektra, while Paul Schoeffler (1897–1977) seems more comfortable in what seems a basically Wagnerian helden-baritone role. The extended “recognition scene”—in which bedraggled Elektra realizes that a stranger is in fact a disguised Orestes—conveys a palpable anguish, the scene a twisted variant on Siegfried and Sieglinde. The murder scene proves quite harrowing, the House of Atreus dripping with blood. Tenor Walter Widdop (1892–1949) brings a nervous hysteria to his confrontation with Elektra, who has passed the fatal hatchet to her brother. Ljuba Welitsch ((1913–1966) enacts sister Chrysothemis with justifiable repugnance at the deed of matricide and murder. The entire scene opening with “Elektra! Schwester!” which culminates in Elektra’s dizzying last dance, has a grueling perversity about it, Viennese rhythms warped by every sort of human malice. The orchestral part urges the strings, battery, and harp to tempests of savagery, what some critics call “purple-prose opera.” But if you must have this music, Beecham certainly gets it right.
How different the string and wind Sinfonica (Overture) that prefaces Beecham’s final scene from Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), with its puns and conceits on the commedia dell’arte and the comedy of Moliere. Strauss wants two simultaneous productions—Le bourgeois gentilhomme and the legend of the abandoned Ariadne—to comment upon each other, an invitation to polyphony of music and mind. The burlesque Moliere group tries to console Ariadne in her tragic mood, having been deserted Theseus. Tenor Karl Friedrich (1905–1981) sings Bacchus, who rules over the Strauss equivalent of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens in the form of Najade, Dryade, and Echo. Soprano Maria Cebotari (1910–1949), near the end of her tragically short career, sings Ariadne. Much of the lush, “magical” instrumentation suggests elements from Der Rosenkavalier and the tone-poem Don Quixote. Zerbinetta (Margaret Field-Hyde), the narrator from the Moliere troupe, appears only at the last, her “many male fish in the sea” cliché for passionate romance having been neutralized by Bacchus’ sincere offer to reinvigorate Ariadne’s capacity for love. Those who admire Maria Cebotari will relish the extended duets with Friedrich, punctuated with hearty outpourings of flute, harp, glockenspiel, and French horn.
By the way, the eighty-three-year-old Strauss attended the first rehearsal for Beecham’s Elektra recording and uttered a loud “Bravo!” in appreciation of an ensemble of interpreters sympathetic to his artistic vision. The Naxos restored sound—courtesy of producer Mark Obert-Thorn—delivers seamless clarity.