RICHARD STRAUSS: Elektra (complete opera) – Jeanne-Michèl Charbonnet (Elektra)/ Angela Denoke (Chrysothemis)/ Felicity Palmer (Klytemnestra)/ Matthias Goerne (Orest)/ Ian Storey (Aegisth)/ London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Valery Gergiev – LSO Live multichannel SACD (2 discs) LSO0701, 108:22 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Amazingly, Elektra is Strauss’s third most popular opera if you go by the number of recordings, right after Rosenkavalier and Salome. Though the latter started him down the path of incipient modernism, Elektra confirmed it. One could make an easy argument that the times, the music, and the topic all combined to form one slap-in-the-face opera with a subject matter every bit as startling as Salome. Despite Salome being initially banned in many places, Strauss used Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra libretto, an adaptation of his own original work, to full effect in creating a complex and psychologically-tormented character whose full panoply of emotions and supporting cast members caused him to use the largest orchestra for any of his operas, purportedly 117 players in the pit on opening night.
The role has since become iconic, and is the make or break of many a soprano in the Wagner mold, along with the almost equally taxing role of murderous mother Klytemnestra. It takes a firm grip on the podium to keep the opera’s many emotional extremes in check, and the success of the conductor determines the outcome as much as the lead role.
Birgit Nilsson’s 1967 recording defines the role for many, but Georg Solti’s conducting sabotages most of it, the hard-drive direction often at odds with music that hardly needs this sort of treatment. My favorite to this point has been Hildegard Behrens’s live Philips recording with Seiji Ozawa done at the Tanglewood Festival. Unusual in that Ozawa hasn’t done much for me since he was much younger, but Behren’s performance is electric if somewhat uneven and strained in spots. This recording, done live also in the LSO’s typical setup, features American soprano Jeanne-Michèl Charbonnet, slowly making a career for herself, and she is in all manner superb. There are the occasional hints of stress and over-singing along the way, but this opera pushes sopranos towards that and a little of that is to be expected. The added bonus of the wonderful acting and solid singing of Felicity Palmer (Klytemnestra) and the forceful and sympathetic Matthias Goerne as Orest add to the overt value of this production.
Sound is fine in terms of separation and balance among the forces, but oddly enough the voices are a bit in the background, almost like a bad recording at Bayreuth. I have never quite heard it like this on the LSO Live label, and it’s not a showstopper but definitely a surprise. Upping the volume made the voices louder but also the orchestra at the same level, so not much help there. My system is not much more sophisticated in terms of bringing out certain types of voices so I guess I am stuck. Again, I would not let this deter anyone from acquiring what is maybe the best SACD set (though Semyon Bychkov has a decent one on the Profil label), and Gergiev continues to impress me in music that I would not associate with his strengths, so maybe I need to reconsider just what I thought those were! An exciting and worthwhile recording!
This is a winning foray into soul jazz.