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DVD Review:

Eva Marton, Brigitte Fassbaender, Cheryl Studer, Franz Grundheber & James King
Chorus & Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Claudio Abbado
Arthaus Musik, 100048 109 minutes 


It has always been a matter of some regret that Claudio Abbado has never recorded Elektra commercially. For this is a great performance, one of the finest you will ever hear with a near-perfect cast and playing by the Vienna Philharmonic that is shattering. Very few conductors have matched Abbado's vision (only Karajan, Kleiber and Böhm equal it) and even fewer versions are as emotionally draining as this performance (only Karajan exceeds Abbado's achievement). He secures not only a ravishing orchestral sound, but singing of the very highest quality.

The triumph is Eva Marton's Elektra. I have never much warmed to Marton as a singer, but here she is staggering. Her first monologue, Allein? Weh, ganz allein, has all the power one could ask for - and her cries of Agamemnon! Agamemnon! are deeply moving. The depth of tone is resplendent. In fact, nothing about her assumption of this role is ordinary - the Recognition Scene with Orestes is profound when most are perfunctory, and her systematic torment of her mother, Klytaemnestra, is as unsettling as it should be. That she has the vocal resources left for her final monologue, and her totentanz, is a tribute to her stamina. The conclusion is just thrilling.

There are normally weak links in most recordings of Elektra, particularly amongst the three female leads who dominate the action of the opera. This recording is almost unique in having none. Carlos Kleiber's sensational performance is let down by Gwyneth Jone's Chrysothemis, but Abbado's Cheryl Studer evinces more of the vulnerability of the role, more of the innocence and naivety of the part than almost any other. Moreover, her singing is just a miracle of beauty. The role of Klytaemnestra requires an actress who can convey the sheer evilness of this vile creation. Brigitte Fassbaender not only looks the part (with her torso bejewelled, almost bent double under the weight) and her face painted to look like a Greek death mask, but her singing is just a sensation. The recounting of her nightmares is one of the most unsettling you will hear. If there is a disappointment it must be that her off stage screams as she is murdered by Orestes are barely audible (in fact, the second scream doesn't seem to appear at all).

The production itself, by Harry Kupfer, is, I think, one of the finest this opera has been given. Hans Schavernoch's stage design is darkness and turmoil itself with the vast head of Agamemnon dominating the stage throughout the entire course of the opera. It is perhaps a little too unremitting - the overall textures are of darkness and barrenness (very rarely does light make an appearance). The entry of Klytaemnestra's entourage, with burning torches preceding her actual appearance, is a rare moment of drama from within the darkness. Elektra is made to look more wretched than one can imagine - her face pallid, her costume of a heavy overcoat a complete contrast to the superficial gaudiness of Klytaemnestra who literally swims in jewellery.

Karajan himself never recorded this opera commercially saying it was one of the works that left him completely physically and emotionally shattered. Claudio Abbado's appearance on stage for his ovation shows a man almost on the verge of collapse. The sense of exhaustion, the complete lack of expression conveys a man almost alone in the world. It is, oddly, one of the most moving parts of this production. He gets the wildest ovation, partly louder than all the others to cover the boos from some members of the Viennese audience.

The sound is extraordinarily vivid, and subtitles can be selected or not (I chose not to have them on view). With 29 cues, it is more generous than in most CD releases of this opera.

This release is an essential purchase. It will certainly be one of my discs of the year.


Marc Bridle


Marc Bridle

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