A Deep Dark Difficult "Black Diamond" of an Opera
Not all music is supposed to be digested in one sitting. Sometimes music has to seep into the nervous system over a period of prolonged exposure. There may be some work involved in understanding it. This is, of course, a tough sell in our instant-gratification age: We know what we like and that's what we buy. In an earlier, pre-iTunes period, choices were more limited, and people would actually sit down and listen to music that repulsed or challenged or terrified them. They didn't expect their own aesthetic to be affirmed every time they pressed Play. These brave souls may not have ended up cherishing every piece they were listening to, but by repeatedly confronting aspects of the musical universe that they found difficult, they broadened their horizons.
For many people who don't listen to opera regularly, Strauss's Elektra, one of the much-hallowed "great operas," may be rough sledding. Historians insist there is important music waiting inside this piece, which premiered in 1909 and was the first of many collaborations between Strauss and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Ears weaned on pop, trained to expect the hook that arrives within the first thirty seconds of a tune, may think otherwise. Strauss did write hooks, but his are not easily repeated advertising slogans. Instead, they're extended paragraphs, thoughts crashing on top of thoughts. It can take several encounters before the themes clarify. As the piece goes on, what began as a trickle of ideas, gathers force: Parts of the "Recognition Scene" in which Elektra first sees the brother she thought was dead are not for those seeking a meditative haven.
Elektra is a tale of revenge based on the writings of Sophocles, and so has overtones of Greek tragedy. It opens with a scene of musical and physical brutality among the maids of a palace, and gets darker from there—when we first meet Elektra, she's being kept with the dogs. Strauss evidently wants to jolt his listeners; that opening, and much of what follows, pushes standard tonality to its limits, with odd chords splayed over several octaves. His techniques, which he largely abandoned in subsequent works like Der Rosenkavalier (see next page), are arresting for their sheer drama, the way they conjure storm clouds in the background.
This version, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is among the greatest. Led by conductor Sir Georg Solti, whose edge-of-your-seat urgings are palpable, it features Birgit Nilsson in the title role. A sensitive soprano able to summon tremendous power on demand, Nilsson sings in shuddering outbursts that lure you into the Elektra terror, and radiate a severe beauty that can pull you back to the piece again and again.
Released: 1967, EMI
Key Tracks: Act 1: "Allein! Weh, ganz, allein"; Act 2: "Nun denn, allein," "Orest!"
Another Interpretation: Astrid Varnay, Kölner Rundfunkorchester
Catalog Choice: Capriccio, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda, Philharmonia Orchestra (Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond.)
Next Stop: Richard Wagner: The Ring Trilogy, Birgit Nilsson, Vienna Philharmonic (Georg Solti, cond.)
After That: Hector Berlioz: Requiem, Boston Symphony Orchestra (Charles Munch, cond.)
Book Page: 748