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Chris Mullins
Opera Today, March 2010

Recorded at the Vienna State Opera house in 1989, this staging of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is one of the glories of live opera on film, deserving of eternal availability. The DVD picture has great clarity, despite the darkness of Hans Schavernoch’s set design. Other than the cliché of a huge statue head, toppled on its side, the set manages to be suitably representative of a decaying palace as well as an imposing, theatrical space, dominated by the mammoth body of the statue from which the head apparently dropped, draped with the ropes that seem to have enabled the decapitation. Sooner or later most of the characters cling to and twist around those ropes, an apt stage metaphor for the remorseless repercussions from the murder of Agammenon by his unfaithful wife Klytämnestra and her paramour, Aegisthus. Reinhard Heinrich’s costumes capture a distant era while sustaining a creepily modern look — part Goth, part homeless, part Spa-wear.

Director Harry Kupfer does brilliant work with the cast. Here Marton seems like a major stage performer. Her Elektra boils inside with hatred and disgust, but she can’t let it show. Marton’s impassive mask draws attention to the steely coldness of her eyes. When she recognizes her brother, Orestes, and knows that her wish will soon be fulfilled, she won’t allow herself conventional jubilation. Instead, she sinks back upon her brother and lets the fire die out of her eyes. Her dance of mortal joy at the end finds her wrapping herself in those ropes trailing from her father’s statue - she lived and died for him; there is no escape. Those who know Marton from her later years will be astounded by the firmness of her delivery - never wobbly, never shrieky. If we evaluate a performer by his or her best, Marton proves herself a great singer here.

Cheryl Studer finds a fire, too, in her Chrysothemis. Neither Kupfer or Brigitte Fassbaender will go for any ghoulish caricature for Klytämnestra, which makes her scarier. James King brings more of his heroic tone that one might expect at this stage of his career to the weaselly Aegisthus. Franz Grundheber is in fine form as Orestes, and Kupfer’s inclusion of Orestes at the end, covered in blood and both triumphant and aghast, ensures a shattering conclusion. Claudio Abbado gets a paradoxical performance out of the Vienna State Opera forces - both brutal and refined. It is the classic Elektra for which Eva Marton should be remembered.

Arthur Lintgen
Fanfare, November 2009

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is almost inextricably associated with Elektra, and for good reason. There is probably no other orchestra that can play Strauss’s amazing and challenging score like they can…Claudio Abbado is not particularly known as a Strauss specialist, but any performance of Elektra with the Vienna Philharmonic and a formidable cast like this should surely be a serious contender. Éva Marton may not be primarily known for the lustrous tonal beauty of her voice, but the role of Elektra is ultimately more about power than beauty. And Marton has plenty of power. She is at the top of her game here as she uses her instrument to great effect. This is a powerful vocal performance. Even if Marton does not possess the cutting, laser-like brilliance of Birgit Nilsson, she does not lapse into squally sounds in this taxing role. Brigitte Fassbaender, with her painted face and black robes wrapped in jewels plays Klytämnestra as a wretched woman wracked with guilt. She may have been near the end of her career, but you would hardly know it. Her voice remains musical, perhaps too much so, even in the recitation of her nightmares. I wasn’t originally sold on Cheryl Studer as Chrysothemis, but after hearing her in the EMI Wolfgang Sawallisch recording, also with Marton, and now here, her lighter and more innately attractive voice works well, especially in the way it contrasts with Marton in Strauss’s brutal musical environment. Her histrionic acting is over the top to the point of being sort of silly.

The Vienna Philharmonic is on fire…Harry Kupfer’s stark production fits Strauss’s expressionistic score well. The stage and background is dark throughout the opera, with any faint light illuminating the performers revealing cold, steely, blue-gray surfaces on a stage dominated by a massive statue of a decapitated Agamemnon with one foot standing on a globe. The stereo sound is outstanding in the way that it captures most of Strauss’s raging orchestra…Subtitles are available in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. The bare-bones booklet contains only an essay on Elektra and brief comments on the cast and production…Despite Abbado’s somewhat sluggish conducting (at least in comparison to Böhm and Solti), this is the best all-around DVD of Elektra because of its outstanding cast, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the dramatically effective but apparently controversial production, as evidenced by some of the surprising boos during the curtain calls.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, November 2009

Strauss’ Elektra was brilliantly performed at the Vienna Opera in 1989. Claudio Abbado’s command of the score is second to none and the orchestra is magnificent…Eva Marton lasts the course impressively in the title role, Brigitte Fassbaender is a stunning Klytämnestra and Cheryl Studer a sturdy Chrysothemis. James King is a fine Aegisth and Franz Grundheber a strong Orest. What gives this performance and production its towering strength is its high pitch of hysteria, which equals that of Strauss’ score. It is a remarkably compact opera, with adventurous harmonies and vividly descriptive orchestration. The sound and video are decent…The choices are PCM Stereo and Dolby Stereo; it should be watched in PCM, for the Dolby muffles the sound.

Robert Croan
Opera News, September 2009

When conductor Claudio Abbado takes his curtain call after this high-powered 1989 Elektra from the Vienna State Opera, the applause is peppered with boos—inexplicably, as the orchestra has played superbly under his baton. The luminous orchestral reflection of Elektra’s jubilation at recognizing Orest is in itself worth the price of a ticket. Throughout, the musical element, with an A-level cast, is excellent.

Perhaps the dissatisfaction was aimed at stage director Harry Kupfer, the controversial one-time director of Berlin’s Komische Oper—yet that cavil is questionable, too. His staging is quirky here and there but mostly traditional compared with the Regietheater now common in opera houses across Europe. Previously out of print, this title is now available from Arthaus Musik.

The production’s greatest shortcoming is its pervading darkness, which, on video, obscures important details. In Hans Schavernoch’s set, one can make out pieces of a large fallen statue of Agamemnon in front of the palace and several dangling ropes, which the protagonists hang onto and even swing from at times. Kupfer is very good with faces. Close-ups show Elektra’s agonies, Klytämnestra’s madness and Orest’s stoic determination with an immediacy that could not be achieved from any seat in an opera house.

Eva Marton, then forty-six and at the height of her vocal powers, has a real Elektra voice—a huge sound, straight-out projection and the stamina to maintain her power to the very end. There’s not much variety of color or nuance, but she modulates volume beautifully for the more tender passages of her opening monologue. Sometimes, in fact, she will whisper an important line too softly. “Was willst du, fremder Mensch?” is barely audible, but at the recognition, she alters each cry of “Orest” to great effect. She’s onstage in the opening scene, confronting the maids and overseer (who all sing very well) like a feral cat. Thereafter, she’s an astute, observant Elektra, reacting to every detail of what goes on around her, often taking focus with her stillness, hardly dancing at all at the end.

In this respect, Marton’s title character is the antithesis of Brigitte Fassbaender’s wild and fearsome Klytämnestra, a kinetic creature of total dementia, made up and costumed like a wicked stepmother from the world of cartoons. It’s an over-the-top rendition, but Fassbaender pulls it off. Her deep, chesty contralto has an intrinsic edge of instability, her diction is impeccable, and she matches each phrase with histrionics that leave nothing to the imagination. The central confrontation between the two women is hair-raising.

Cheryl Studer’s Chrysothemis is dwarfed by these two riveting personalities—that’s the nature of the role—but she acts with conviction and sings with a sense of line that comes close to bel canto. She phrases the “Kinder will ich haben” section with warmth and urgency, though unlike Marton, Studer sounds a little worn later on.

From his entrance, Franz Grundheber is an imposing Orest. His mask-like face, with big, dark circles around the eyes, makes Orest’s anguish as mythical as Elektra’s grief is human. His open-voiced baritone has a presence that is commanding on its own. Even so, he gets a special moment from Kupfer, who brings Orest back—silent, bloodied and triumphant—at the last moment.

James King’s too-brief cameo as Aegisth is almost too regal for this dissipated character, and he sings his lines so beautifully that we may be sorry he gets killed so quickly.

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