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Richard Lawrence
Gramophone, September 2013

STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (NTSC) OA1046D
STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7082D

Herbert Wernicke’s 1987 Munich production was restaged in Baden-Baden by Bettina Göschl. It is visually impressive…There are fine performances all round, especially from conductor Christian Thielemann… © 2013 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Richard Fairman
Gramophone, February 2011

STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (NTSC) OA1046D
STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7082D

Thielemann’s orchestra upstages but never overwhelms the singers

The outstanding performance here comes from the pit. True to form, Christian Thielemann sees Elektra as a vantage-point for looking back over the 19th-century Romanticism rather than forward to modern Expressionism. The orchestral sound he favours is founded on a luxurious tapestry of strings, overlaid by a massive onslaught of the brass at climaxes, and the whole grand conception is very well realised by the Munich Philharmonic. From time to time the pacing feels too laid back—Elektra’s scrabbling for the axe of vengeance is short on nervous energy—but otherwise this is a majestic performance that rises to heights of grandiloquence. Thanks either to Thielemann himself or the recording engineers, the singers have no trouble making themselves heard.

Productions of Elektra tend to be either indulgent displays of post-Freudian excess or stark and plain. Herbert Wernicke’s staging at Baden-Baden, dominated by a sliding black wall that opens up occasional gashes of light, belongs in category two. There is nothing controversial here, just a straightforward retelling of the myth that puts the singers centre stage. The clean lines and bold splashes of colour come across with striking clarity in this high-quality film.

Even in close-up, Linda Watson looks fully inside the character of Elektra. She starts the evening in rather wobbly voice, excusable in the face of such a taxing evening, and though she settles down later, neither steadiness nor intonation is ever quite ideal. Her strength is the all-embracing commitment she brings to her portrayal. Manuela Uhl’s voice is a touch too bright and thin at the top to qualify as the ideal Strauss lyric soprano but her defensive Chrysothemis suggests well the introverted younger sister. As Klytemnestra, Jane Henschel makes a grand entrance in regal red, apparently swathed in the Royal Opera House curtains, and offers impressive singing to half-whispered intimacy. Albert Dohmen is the businesslike Orest and René Kollo puts in a star cameo as Aegisth. In the absence of competition from the great singers of the past at their peak, this well-produced DVD will do nicely.

Jeffrey Kauffman, January 2011

When Stanley Kubrick perhaps fortuitously chose Richard Strauss iconic Also Sprach Zarathustra as one of the most memorable cues of 20th century film, it instantly elevated the composer to a level of pop culture consciousness that he had never experienced before, certainly not in his own lifetime. Strauss’ achievements were never ignored, to be sure, and he was a titan of German and international music for most of his life, but after his death in 1949 the misapprehension that he was somehow involved with Hitler and the Nazis colored the post-War appreciation and performance of his music. Slowly but surely, however, Strauss’ reputation rose from the ashes through the 1950’s and 1960’s until Kubrick made that opening C major-minor triad of Zarathustra an international “hit”, aided a few years later by Brazilian pianist-arranger Deodato’s funky remake of the basic melodic idea. Suddenly Strauss was an “it” composer, and his tone poems especially became regular repertory pieces all over the world. His operas, however, with the possible exception of Der Rosenkavalier, continued to be a bit more of a thorny matter, due both to their sometimes explicit subject matter, but perhaps more realistically for their often strident musical content. Strauss pushed the envelope quite forcefully in his vocal music, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in his “mythic” operas like Salome and Elektra.

The world of Greek mythology fascinated the German psyche is a way that is perhaps not so understandable to modern Western sensibilities. But to take just one example, Wagner utilized mythic elements culled from the Greeks, albeit shoehorned into Norse tropes, in virtually all of his major pieces. Strauss, like Wagner, was drawn to the epochal nature of the Greek myths, though his approach was perhaps to stray less from the source material than the Bard of Bayreuth. Strauss had in fact been lured into both Salome and, later, Elektra by seeing the dramatic adaptations by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who would go on to provide the libretti for Strauss’ operatic takes on the stories. Von Hofmannstahl utilized music itself as a metaphor for various psychological issues that crop up in both operas, operas which feature famously fractured leading “heroines,” although in both instances, anti-heroines might be more apt. Strauss sensed this musical underpinning from the very first time he saw the original plays, and created some of his own most challenging compositions in attempting to further elucidate the “music” in von Hofmannstahl’s text.

Elektra appeared previously on Blu-ray, in a Zurich production that was at best unseemly and at best saved by an interesting production design, certainly not the highest recommendation one could have for watching an opera. This new 2010 production recorded at Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus offers a more classical interpretation of the source material, in a production diametrically opposed to the Zurich, but featuring a production design that is at least as striking as that other version. Spare, lean, and stripped to its devastating emotional core, this Elektra is cast almost uniformly in shades of black, red and white, something that evidently von Hofmannstahl himself advocated in the early 20th century. This production is based upon the late Herbert Wernicke’s version, first done in Munich in 1997.

Elektra is the female equivalent of Oedipus, a conflicted character who wreaks havoc on her family, although unlike Oedipus, her devastation is conscious and not unwitting. The revenge fantasy which plays out in Strauss’ opera is highlighted by some of his most expressive and violent music. Elektra is not for the faint of heart, and it frankly is not always “easy” to listen to, but it immediately creates a disjointed, emotionally debilitating ambience that is like a window into its title character’s fractured soul.

Linda Watson has become one of the better known interpreters of Wagner, and she brings that same lugubrious vocal quality and intense dramatic presence to her portrayal of Elektra. She is a magnetic force of nature in this production, and most viewers will not be able to pry their eyes off of her. The entire cast, though, rises to the occasion rather splendidly throughout this production, and it’s all the more notable because there really isn’t a wealth of bells and whistles here to keep the viewer otherwise occupied. Attention always remains resolutely on the singers, probably as it obviously should be, but seldom is in the world of tarted up reimaginings of classic pieces.

Christian Thielemann conducts here with panache and ferocity, leading the Munich Philharmonic (where he makes his conducting home) and the Vienna Philharmonic Choir in a blistering account of one of Strauss’ most problematic scores. With huge intervallic leaps and brittle dissonances, a helmsman of impeccable vigor, but also a certain degree of restraint, is required, and Thielemann does excellent work here. The singing and playing is at a very high level, helping to smooth out some of what can be rough edges in productions not handled as well as this one is.

It’s bracing to experience Elektra stripped back to something akin to its Grecian roots. One almost imagines one is in an ancient Greek amphitheater, seeing these mythic characters as Sophocles himself may have imagined them, without a lot of set dressing and other distractions getting in the way. This is certainly one of the most visceral productions of Elektra you’re likely to see, something quite remarkable when the pure visceral impact of Elektra is one of its most salient characteristics in even the worst productions.

Video Quality

Despite, or perhaps exactly because of, being cast in a handful of stark colors, this AVC encoded 1080i Blu-ray (in 1.78:1) looks brilliantly sharp and is amazingly effective within the confines of its extremely limited palette. What you get here are pale whites, shadowy blacks, and blood reds and royal blues. That’s really about it, but there is such a spare beauty to this production that the lack of mind blowing kaleidoscopic effects only adds to the emotional turmoil of the characters. This is one of the most interesting looking operas we’ve had on Blu-ray for a long time, specifically because of how minimal it all is. The stage is often lit and masked into oddly asymmetrical geometric shapes, and only the humans provide any relief from the hard edges of this approach. The image here is wonderfully sharp, clear and well detailed. Just don’t be expecting Speed Racer: The Opera.

Audio Quality

There are occasional niggling balance issues which keep me from giving Elektra’s lossless audio mixes a perfect score, but otherwise you’d be hard pressed to find better fidelity than either the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 tracks included on this Blu-ray. This is not the most gorgeously melodic of Strauss’ scores, not to state the obvious, but the strident and hyperbolically emotional aspects of the score are presented with stunning clarity and absolutely astounding dynamic range on this Blu-ray. The orchestra is sharp and brittle and Watson and her co-stars are bright without being overly harsh. As tends to be the case with Strauss’ gargantuan orchestral forces and overpowering orchestrations, at times the singers are just slightly buried underneath the orchestral masses, and that’s really my only complaint of any import with regard to this stellar release.

Special Features and Extras

Aside from the usual Cast Gallery, Elektra also features:

  • The Making of Elektra (1080i; 14:35) a kind of fun featurette where we get to see some backstage shenanigans, some of which seem sort of out of place considering the dramatic excesses of the opera. Watson actually knows how to smile and laugh!

Overall Score and Recommendation

Elektra epitomizes the angst and encroaching terror that surrounded the early 20th century’s most gifted artists and seemed to affect them on an almost subliminal level. This is not an easy piece by any stretch, and it takes a certain intestinal fortitude to make it through two hours of such relentless fury. This production helps ground the soaring peaks and devastating valleys of one of Strauss’ most difficult scores by removing any production design excesses and stripping the elements back to their mythical bases. Expertly sung and played, this Elektra is Highly Recommended.

Robert Benson, January 2011

This production of Elektra by Herbert Wernicke was first given in October 1992 at the Bavarian State Opera; this revival was in January/February 2010. In many ways, it is striking concept of Strauss’s masterpiece, with a bare set and a huge black moving panel that when moved lets us see brilliant expanses of blood red. Elektra wears a dark gown, Chrysothemis wears white, Klytämnestra wears red, Orest has a rumpled business suit and Aegisth wears a white dinner jacket. For the most part, singers face the audience and do not interact with each other. Throughout most of the opera, Elektra carries an axe, and it is a stunning moment when she swings it twice as her mother is killed. However, the mood is quickly broken when she has an electric lantern to light the way for Aegisth. At the end of the opera, Elektra doesn’t do a dance of triumph as Strauss wanted; she turns her back to the audience and kills herself with the axe (!). There is no explanation for these arbitrary decisions by director Wernicke. Linda Watson was to make her debut as Elektra with the Vienna State Opera, but on eight week’s notice appeared in this production when the scheduled soprano cancelled. Watson is outstanding vocally, as is Jane Henschel as the Queen. This cannot be said of German soprano Manuela Uhl, who doesn’t have the power and stability the role of Chrysothemis demands. Uhl (b. 1971) has been a favorite in German opera houses in a wide variety of roles that range from Handel and Strauss to contemporary opera. She has been acclaimed by some for her Salome (you can see a snippet of it on YouTube). Albert Dohmen is a strong Orest, and the tattered voice of veteran René Kollo is appropriate for Aegisth. The orchestra under Christian Thielemann’s powerful direction, is superb. Video and audio are first-rate. This is an intriguing view of Elektra…

OperaJournal, November 2010

The concept behind the presentation of this 2010 Baden-Baden Festspielhaus production of Elektra is immediately apparent and impactful—it’s a stark and brutal representation of Richard Strauss’ dark, brooding and bloody retelling of the Sophocles’ classic mythological drama. As if to reflect the powerful emotions of despair and sentiments of revenge that dominate the tone of the opera, the staging, the lighting, the choreography—more like a concert performance than a dramatically staged opera—all seek to emphasise the loss and isolation of the principal characters.

The Baden-Baden Festspielhaus is a huge stage, and stage director Herbert Wernicke takes full advantage of it, with stark lighting, and minimal use of backgrounds, props or movement, isolating the characters who are all entirely wrapped up in their own grief and torments. The vast stage is however amply filled by the formidable presence of Linda Watson and Jane Henshel as Electra and Clytemnestra, with their imposing stature and powerful singing. The charge that they bring to the complex relationship between the mythological mother and daughter—one that of course has become archetypal—is remarkable. Strauss’ chilling, sinister score is equally effective in filling the void that exists between them, not so much underscoring every jibe, cutting remark, underlying threat and menacing gesture, as much as dissecting it in a manner that the listener can physically feel every nuance of an emotional soundscape that is bristling with murderous intent.

Much like Salome that preceded it, with the imagery of doom and bloodletting even more pronounced here, Elektra is consequently a draining experience, even for its relative shortness, which is precisely how it is meant to feel. Conductor Christian Thielemann brings that out with delicacy and without any blood and thunder—or at least not too much—allowing the Munich Philharmonic to blend with the outstanding singing performances in a manner that allows the piece to resonate with almost unbearable sustained tension and menace. There Karl Böhm Elektra would appear to be the best DVD of this opera to date and the one that this attempts to better, but while I haven’t seen that version and can’t compare relative merits, this is nonetheless a strong and faithful production on its own terms.

The starkness of the staging doesn’t really allow the HD presentation on the Blu-ray to shine, finding it difficult to display the huge blocks of black backgrounds, which consequently look quite grainy. The stark white spotlights and the deep reds however are impressively rendered. The sound balance appears to have been carefully mixed in both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks to allow both singing and orchestration plenty of room to breathe, with deep reverberation on those lower register chords. Other than Cast information, the only extra feature on the disc is a 15-minute Making of Elektra which is an interesting and sufficiently in-depth look at the background of the production.

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