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Though he lived until 1949, Richard Strauss is generally regarded as a relic of the 19th century. Grounds for this view are found in his sumptuous musical idiom for Der Rosenkavalier and his various tone poems. Strauss retained his distinctive and emphatically tonal mode of expression until the end of his life, which rendered him to some extent persona non grata among the self-appointed musical mavens of the 20th century. Willingly or not, he bore the banner of reaction against the music of the future.
Yet one can argue that the works of Strauss show that he and his most famous collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, are in fact the seminal figures of 20th-century opera–though this is perhaps a dubious honor.
In the early part of his operatic career, during the first decade of this century, Strauss plumbed the darkest depths of the human psyche, all the way from necrophilia to incest to insanity. If the intellectual elites of this century have scorned the musical idiom of Strauss as unprogressive, they have fallen over their feet in their rush to imitate the hideous view of human nature shown in Salome and Elektra. Pursuing a dramatic path marked out by Strauss in his early mature works, these would-be revolutionaries chose a musical idiom that’s well suited to portraying evil, ugliness, and insanity–the obsessions of opera and seemingly of all art in our intellectually morose, artistically impoverished culture. But Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s artistic paradigm set forth in Elektra has overshadowed the achievements of the decades since its premiere, both in its drama and its tonal idiom.
Strauss continued developing after writing Elektra, and his later and more human operas–Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, even Die Frau Ohne Schatten–are what alienated him from what was to become the mainstream of 20th-century art. Yet these works will undoubtedly prove more enduring than Elektra’s atonal heirs–noisy way stations on a road to a sterile irrelevance.
Lyric Opera’s current production of Elektra demonstrates that the irrelevance that has overtaken the arts in general and opera in particular in the post-World War II era is nowhere more pronounced than in direction and design. Operagoers will find the sets of Hans Schavernoch, the direction of Gotz Friedrich, and the costumes of Lore Haas offer the same brand of puerile German angst that has burdened our stages for decades. There’s nothing new here, folks. The same POW greatcoats opposing the furs and evening gowns of bourgeois complacency. The same concentration-camp sets. (Did I see a corridor from the old Starship Enterprise set posing as the entry to the palace?) The same old distracting melee of the chorus and supernumeraries during the denouement. These were not great ideas when new, and now they’re covered with cobwebs.
Anyone who heard Eva Marton in last year’s Turandot would rightly fear her appearance as the obsessed daughter of Agamemnon. But the battle-hardened instrument of the Hungarian-born soprano is well suited to the strident tones of the half-crazed princess. It may not be pretty, but this role calls for power, not beauty. Marton seems to be singing softly, albeit audibly, until the orchestra cuts out and the listener realizes the sheer volume that she’s generating. Her demented Elektra is frightening, but perhaps one should not be surprised at this. Most divas throw the occasional fit, and with a modest application of Stanislavski, Marton is right at home–especially in a costume that makes her look like a ’68 radical who logged a few too many rough trips and now lives as a street person.
In the role of Elektra’s younger sister Chrysothemis, who sold out and married an insurance salesman, is Nadine Secunde, who sang as strikingly and sweetly as Strauss’s overpowering orchestration permits. My only objection was that her frenetic demeanor made her seem almost as crazy as Elektra, though Chrysothemis is usually the portrait of normalcy in the extremely abnormal atmosphere of the Agamemnon family feud. Leonie Rysanek held the attention of the audience in an iron grasp every second she was onstage. Her Klytemnestra was a perfect realization of a corrupt old dowager clinging to a life that gives her no pleasure. She carried off the role handsomely without resorting to the screeching so often thought appropriate in portraying an oldster. James Johnson gave an admirable stone-faced impression as Orest, his one big scene with his sister showing his implacable desire for vengeance helped along by his dry baritone. Barry Busse gave a decent rendering of the weak character of Aegisth, though he was strangely costumed as some kind of pop-music figure with attendant punk courtiers.
The numerous minor roles in this opera make it a comprimario’s delight. They were all carried off without serious problems, but Gwenneth Bean’s full-bodied alto set her apart from the crowd.
The Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, blasted away spiritedly at this complex score and did their best to live up to Strauss’s exhortation to silence the singers, though the vocal quality of the cast made that an impossible task.