Todd K | 06/20/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Previously available on an Image Entertainment DVD before falling out of the catalog for some time, the 1989 Kupfer/Abbado Vienna production makes a welcome reappearance under the Arthaus Musik imprint. The dominant image in Harry Kupfer's stage picture is an enormous statue of Agamemnon with one foot bearing down on a globe. The statue has been decapitated by Aegisth and his followers, and the head lies a short distance away, nearer the rear of the stage. Ropes are attached to the statue's body in preparation for the remainder of it to be leveled. In this very physical production, in which the principals often grab hold of and struggle with one another, the ropes play an important part in the choreography: in solos, singers will grip one or two ropes and swing from them or entangle themselves; in the great mother/daughter duet, we keep expecting Elektra to use one either to bind or to strangle Klytämnestra. Elektra only infrequently moves away from the base of the statue, remaining figuratively in her father's lap (or shadow?), to which she draws others: her sister, her hated mother and stepfather, her brother. This video production has been criticized elsewhere for its "Stygian darkness," but on this new reissue, it looks considerably better than its detractors would suggest: black levels are strong, colors vivid, stage action clear.
A mixture of cheers and loud boos greeted Maestro Claudio Abbado and the production team at final curtain, after the predictable ovations for the singers. While I can see why the staging may not have been to everyone's taste, the booing of Abbado I find unconscionable. From the orchestral standpoint, this immediately leapt to a position near the top of the list of ELEKTRAs I have heard, and that list includes the famous recorded interpretations of Solti, Karajan, Böhm, and Sawallisch. As was the case with Abbado's LOHENGRIN and KHOVANSHCHINA for the Vienna State Opera that same season (both also available on DVD, the LOHENGRIN with one of the same singers), the sonorities are ravishing and the textures stupendous in their clarity. The 1981 Götz Friedrich film conducted by the elderly Karl Böhm was as gripping a slow performance of ELEKTRA as anyone could want. This one is as gripping but at the opposite pole -- Abbado's swifter, lighter, more lyrical approach shaves a good seven minutes off the opera's running time, but makes its points with no less force. Where Böhm lumbers (quite effectively), Abbado sprints.
Abbado and Kupfer were fortunate in their casting, which also compares favorably with that of the Friedrich film. Eva Marton was not as interesting an actress as Leonie Rysanek was, but she had a genuine Elektra voice (Rysanek, of course, was a celebrated Chrysothemis who only dared the title role under studio conditions), and her performance, if a trifle blunt, is an impressive display at the levels of amplitude and stamina. Cheryl Studer has done little better than this gorgeously intoned and intelligently phrased Chrysothemis, and is in a different league from her rather blowsy counterpart in the Friedrich film, Catarina Ligendza. Brigitte Fassbaender's distinctive timbre can be savored as Klytämnestra, and she cannot be accused of singing badly or of failing to throw herself into it; but even allowing that what she is doing is scaled to the theater (a large one, at that), and allowing that one expects a certain amount of histrionic frenzy from a Klytämnestra, she goes over the top by some margin. Still, she is closer to her vocal prime than was Astrid Varnay for Friedrich/Böhm. Franz Grundheber, on the other hand, is a vocally and dramatically splendid Orest, and James King a luxury-class Aegisth -- one does not often encounter a distinguished former Siegmund in this part, so often squawked out by reedy character tenors. The smaller parts (maids and attendants, etc.) are stylishly done. The subtitling and the video direction (the latter by Brian Large) could hardly be bettered.
For its vocally prodigal ensemble alone, this would be an essential addition to the Strauss DVD library. As noted above, it has considerably more going for it than that, being shaped eloquently and seductively from the pit and featuring a production that, at the very least, is unlikely to bore."
Beautifully sung, but...........
Mr John Haueisen | WORTHINGTON, OHIO United States | 11/25/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This production of Elektra is exceptionally well sung by all involved--no weak links.
The Vienna State Opera under Claudio Abbado provides a richer orchestral sound than I have heard in other productions.
I should warn you about the staging, costumes, and subtitles:
The staging and scenery are uworldly--a huge bust (of Agamemnon?), a giant, planet-like sphere, and many ropes hanging from the ceiling. The ropes provide something for the singers to hang onto and struggle against, but some may find this distracting.
The costuming is dark and of no identifiable nationality or time period--and that's OK--it fits in with the intended dark and gloomy prisonlike world of Elektra. But the headgear seems too bizarre to me. Chrisothemis seems to be wearing a conehead hat, and the rest wear hats resembling leather football helmets of the 1920s.
The optional subtitles are in something like King James English, with lots of "thou" and "thee." Perhaps that's intended to help set a long-in-the-past atmosphere.
Although Marton and Studer sing very well, I found Brigitte Fassbaender to be the one who steals the show. Kitschly-bejewelled, she hobbles along, decrepit, deranged, and hideous--EXACTLY what most expect of Elektra's evil mother. Much as a really nasty Scarpia makes the opera, Tosca work, Elektra works best played off a totally repulsive Klytemnestra.
If the mentioned issues about subtitles, hats, and staging would not bother you, the rest of it is a delightful dark operatic work. By the way, Elektra is NOT a pseudo-psycho-sexual story about a girl obsessed with her father. As you mythology folks know, Elektra's obsession is about getting JUSTICE for her father's murder."
The good outweighs the bad
wolfgang731 | 01/13/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This production is very satisfying on some levels yet equally disappointing in others. I'll start with the latter. To me, there was absolutely no sense of time or place in the drama. Ancient Greece may just as well have been Weimar Republic Berlin. The stage is dominated by the lower half of a mammoth statue (I'm assuming Agamemnon due to Elektra forever clinging, sitting, prostrating on its base) and a little further upstage the now detached, crumbling head of same; however, the statue is in slacks and wearing boots and a coat. No bare legs or sandaled feet here. The costumes are a hodgepodge of styles that prove to be utterly distracting and just downright ugly, with both Klytemnestra and Chrysothemis looking like they just left a Nora Desmond look-alike contest, wearing turbans, garish amounts of rouge and so much blue eye shadow that Mimi from the Drew Carey Show sports the natural look in comparison. Elektra, on the other hand, sports a bandage-like head piece and a tattered 19th century military overcoat with patches of glittery fabric on the sleeves. The queen's servants were clad in costumes that look like they were stolen from the set of 1980's Flash Gordon, all shiny fabrics and bead work worthy of a showgirl. Ridiculous. And to make matters worse, they scuttled about the stage bent over like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, I imagine suggesting perpetual reverence to their queen. In response to someone who posted a comment to Michael Miano's review stating "They (the costumes) are abstract, who knows what people wore at that time?" I've got news for you and that is historians know full well what was worn in ancient Greece so that's hardly a valid statement. Two other irritating factors were that as the curtain dropped we see Elektra standing mid-stage along with her servants, all of whom are talking about her like she isn't even there. Elektra's entrance is therefore robbed of its impact due to this misstep in direction. The second was the use of the ropes that seemingly hung from the arms of the statue and from which Elektra forever clutched. It gave the impression that at any moment, Elektra and Klytemnestra were going to start twirling about like acrobats. Another distraction for me was the supremely archaic English translation that was provided. Now to the good, because there is an incredible amount of it. Marton's voice was not at its best when this was recorded, but what she lacked in beautiful tone she more than made up for in sheer commitment; a powerful delivery of text and heartfelt acting; her pallid face streaked with tears and eyes icy with contempt. Studer's voice, in turn, was in fine shape and she, too, brought the requisite goods to her Chrysothemis, a frightened girl caught between the love for her sister and duty to her mother. Brigitte Fassbaender's Klytemnestra was wonderfully effective; a frenzied bundle of fear, pity and rage. She pulled out all the stops to render a three dimensional character that was as vile as she was pathetic. I can only imagine what further impact she and Studer would have made if they hadn't been hampered by those preposterous costumes. Franz Grunheber's Orest was finely delivered but not particularly memorable. Claudio Abbado's conducting was tight and the urgency of the score was not lost on him with deft tempi and dynamics throughout. This production worked for me exclusively on a musical level but not at all on a visual one. If the former is all you care about, then you'll have little to gripe about here because it's a very powerful reading of Elektra, Marton's vocal flaws and all. I only wish that the wonderful Met production from 1994 with Behrens in the title role would be made commercially available because that one works on every single level."