[Met Performance] CID:158990
Elektra {15} Metropolitan Opera House: 02/18/1952.

(Debut: Walburga Wegner
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
February 18, 1952


ELEKTRA {15}
R. Strauss-Hofmannsthal

Elektra.................Astrid Varnay
Chrysothemis............Walburga Wegner [Debut]
Klytämnestra............Elisabeth Höngen
Orest...................Hans Hotter
Aegisth.................Set Svanholm
Overseer................Thelma Votipka
Serving Woman...........Martha Lipton
Serving Woman...........Hertha Glaz
Serving Woman...........Mildred Miller
Serving Woman...........Lucine Amara
Serving Woman...........Genevieve Warner
Confidant...............Jean Madeira
Trainbearer.............Paula Lenchner
Young Servant...........Paul Franke
Old Servant.............Luben Vichey
Guardian................Alois Pernerstorfer

Conductor...............Fritz Reiner

Director................Herbert Graf
Set designer............Joseph Urban
Costume designer........Lillian Gärtner Palmedo

Elektra received five performances this season.

Review of Cecil Smith in Musical America
Not for thirteen years had a Metropolitan audience been subjected to the Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal Elektra when its cold horrors were told forth from stage and pit of February 18. Until this season, producing Elektra has never been a cause close to the heart of the Metropolitan management. The opera was not heard in the house at all until nearly 23 years after its memorable N. Y. premiere in 1910 by the Hammerstein company, with Mariette Mazarin in the title role. In its last three appearances previous to the current revival-in January 1939, with Rose Pauly as Elektra and Artur Bodanzky conducting-it was companioned in the evening's bill by Gian-Carlo Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball, no doubt as a sop to light-minded patrons and the barroom concession.

This time Elektra made so profound an impression, both by the vicious power of the score and by the superlative interpretation it received, that is is hardly likely to remain unperformed a the Metropolitan for another thirteen years. Seldom in recent years has an audience at the opera house been more deeply stirred or aroused to a greater demonstration of enthusiasm. At the end of the opera there was no Amelia Goes to the Ball to take the curse off; nor was it thinkable that any other music could follow a dénouement so final and so forcefully achieved. The audience remained to applaud for a quarter of an hour a success shared by Fritz Reiner, Astrid Varnay, the other singers in the well-schooled cast of sixteen-and, certainly, Strauss, whose musical vocabulary, as extreme today as it was nearly two generations ago, has finally become intelligible to a large public.

Obviously Rudolf Bing believed that Elektra was worth doing well if it was worth doing at all. In every musical department the performance was extraordinary. Under Mr. Reiner the orchestra, increased in personnel to somewhere near the hundred mark, played the score even better than the Philharmonic-Symphony had in 1949. Miss Varnay sang the demanding central role with a musical accuracy, total propulsion, and continuing freshness of sound so rare in this part as to be almost unheard of. Elisabeth Höngen as Klytemnestra and Walburga Wegner, making her debut as Chrysothemis, rivalled Miss Varnay in accomplished musicianship if not in sheer physical resource. Set Svanholm, as Aegisth, and Hans Hotter, as Orest, were equally secure although the demands made on them were brief....

If Mr. Reiner spared us none of the meaning of Strauss's tone representations, neither did Miss Varnay. For all her obeisance toward Italian opera in the past two or three seasons, this is the kind of music she should sing. If there were unstable or ragged moments in her vocalizing, nobody needed to pay them heed. For her comprehension of the text in relation to the music, and consequently in her inflection and coloration of both words and music, made her performance absorbing; and her ability at all times to sing as high or low and as loudly or as softly as the occasion required, and always to come cleanly across the biggest orchestra sonority, made her singing a really imposing feat.

As an actress, Miss Varnay was somewhat less compelling. She had prepared the role with the utmost regard for the importance of its plastic elements. She was at ease in her movements and she kept them within a context of stylization out of which her two episodes of dancing developed naturally. But except in the recognition scene she failed to achieve the submergence of device in characterization that is the mark of genuine acting. Her performance had the outlines of acting, but not the substance of it.

In this matter, she was perhaps somewhat let down by the stage direction of Herbert Graf. It is of course impossible to achieve the ultimate in a Metropolitan production for which limited rehearsal is allowed. He was required to accept the individual interpretations of the various principals as they prepared them, and content himself with devising relationships and groupings that would bring these diverse interpretations into satisfactory pictorial unity. The highly choreographed style of Miss Varnay did not jibe with the naturalistic acting of Miss Höngen and Miss Wegner; perhaps one reason the recognition scene seemed truer than the rest of Miss Varnay's performance lay in the skill with which Mr. Hotter made himself, stylistically speaking, a neutral figure without failing to project both power and magnetism. Here, at least, there was no outward conflict of styles.

And not only was Miss Varnay's movement at variance with that of the other principal women; it was unrelated to the incidental group choreography provided by Zachary Solov, which was conceived in terms of balletic realism, neither really realistic or balletic. The movement of the whole production interested Mr. Graf too little, or else he could do nothing to improve them. It is useless, I am sure, to point out after the fact that Martha Graham would have been the right stage director for Elektra; but at any rate the opera can never be a satisfactory spectacle without the imposition of a single style of movement and gesture.

Taken in its own terms, Miss Höngen's Klytemnestra was magnificent. Her appearance had the rottenness of self-indulgence. Her fear of Elektra left one unpitying, as it should; her jubilation upon receiving word of Orest's death was hellish. Although her voice was far from being large enough, she used a quasi-vocalized Sprechstimme to make both the words and their emotional quality carry over the orchestra. With only a fraction of the vocal power of a Kerstin Thorborg or a Karin Branzell she was none the less able to make her Klytemnestra a full-scale portrait.

Miss Wegner also succeeded despite Nature's firm intention that she should restrict herself to music that is gentler and less dense. She sounded like a Sophie singing far too loud, and if one extricated the separate tone of her voice from the whole sonorous web it was apparent, from the way in which true vibrato disappeared and tremolo took its place, that she was trying her powers severely. But she too was always audibile. More important, she sang the music intelligently and with good instinct, and kept the relatively colorless little sister from being wholly obliterated by the impact of Elektra's dominant personality.



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