Each of these is, in its way, a legendary performance of Strauss' "Elektra," and that despite the fact that both date from the early part of this decade.
Indeed the Met production, taped in February 1980, became such a sensation at the time of its telecast that I remember getting queries from as far away as Taiwan asking if I had a copy. I did, but except for a less-than-ideal side break - admittedly tough to achieve in this opera, with its virtually unbroken action and music - nothing so fine as what Pioneer has wrought on this new laser issue. (The same performance is also available, for something like half the price, on tape - VHS or Beta - from Bel Canto.)For one thing it preserves in Birgit Nilsson's assumption of the title role what is probably the pre-eminent Elektra of this generation. True, at times she sings a bit under the note (e.g., the beginning of the Recognition Scene), but even this late in her career the voice still slices though the orchestral fabric like nobody's business. Moreover, she is partnered by the Chrysothemis of Leonie Rysanek, likewise showing her age but still convincing in her projection of this character's womanliness and essential vulnerability.
Add to that the disciplined strength of James Levine's conducting, searingly dramatic but still able to let the Straussian beauty shine through amid the horror (most unexpectedly in Klytaemnestra's eerie music), and you have what by all rights should have remained an insuperable presentation.
But that was reckoning without the Goetz Friedrich film, made the following year in Vienna. Not that his singers are any younger - in addition to Rysanek, Varnay and Fischer-Dieskau the cast includes such veterans as Josef Greindl and Kurt Boehme - or, for that matter, his conductor. This was in fact Karl Boehm's last project before his death and, by all accounts, he was close to completing it. Nonetheless, nearly every participant seems to have been lifted beyond himself in what turns out to be a gripping performance from first note to last.
Rysanek, for her part, is nothing short of amazing as Elektra, a role she had never sung before and to my knowledge still has never sung onstage. Not only is the voice itself in better shape than it was in the Met production (where occasionally things get a bit plummy) but she brings an expressive grandeur and linguistic penetration to the part unique in my experience. One seldom thinks of inner radiance in connection with this character, but that is what Rysanek achieves, without diminishing her obsessive thirst for vengeance.
No less remarkable is the Klytaemnestra of Astrid Varnay (herself a onetime Elektra), bloated and diseased as she floats through the blood-red orgy that seems to be taking place within the palace. Vocally one hears less control and amplitude than Mignon Dunn brings to the part under Levine, but that is simply a skillful impersonation. Varnay, one feels, is Klytaemnaestra, loathsomely fingering the jewels she hopes will dispel the nightmares that have followed her murder of her husband.
For the rest, Catarina Ligendza makes an affecting Chrysothemis (even if she does sound a bit taxed in the final duet); Fischer-Dieskau a dignified if somewhat distanced Orest, the voice a bit darker than usual. (The Met's Donald McIntyre, by contrast, is more dramatically alive but with little vocal allure.) Finally, despite cuts and generally slower tempos, Boehm manages to find even greater power and richness in the score than Levine.
The force that binds all this into a consistently involving cinematic whole, however, is Friedrich's unfailingly imaginative direction. From the first, in which we see the rain spattering the stones that bear the blood of Agamemnon as the serving girls attempt to scrub it out, this production fairly drips with decadence and depravity.
Does the ruined courtyard, with its craggy monoliths and broken statuary, represent what is left of this family following the slaying of Agamemnon (here depicted in flashback)? Do the flames inside the palace bespeak the adulterous passion that prompted it? Whatever the case, those outside almost appear to have been bathed in clay, lending an earthy softness to Elektra and her sister as the former attempts to urge the latter to their mother's murder.
Obviously not a pretty story. But to his credit, Friedrich has met it head-on, not even being above having Elektra, Salome-like, kiss the severed head of her father (i.e., from his statue) and dance over it, foreshadowing her final dance of triumph.
Were that not enough, through the miracle of pre-recording, both the voices and the orchestra are in sharper focus here than in the Met production, even if the lip-synching is not always exact. Moreover, at the cost of an extra disc, PolyGram's breaks are less disruptive musically (although I expect many will take exception to the second, just before Elektra's cry of "Orest! Orest!" in the Recognition Scene). That difference is barely reflected in the price, however, which for either one disc or two seems a bit steep for less than two hours of music. Especially when the Met issue, in place of the usual deluxe box, substitutes a slip liner. But I will not quarrel with the result, and neither, I expect, would Strauss.