[Met Performance] CID:260350
Elektra {58} Metropolitan Opera House: 02/1/1980.

(Debut: Talmage Harper, Paul Mills
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
February 1, 1980


ELEKTRA {58}
R. Strauss-Hofmannsthal

Elektra.................Birgit Nilsson
Chrysothemis............Leonie Rysanek
Klytämnestra............Mignon Dunn
Orest...................Donald McIntyre
Aegisth.................Richard Cassilly
Overseer................Elizabeth Coss
Serving Woman...........Batyah Godfrey Ben-David
Serving Woman...........Shirley Love
Serving Woman...........Ariel Bybee
Serving Woman...........Loretta Di Franco
Serving Woman...........Alma Jean Smith
Confidant...............Constance Webber
Trainbearer.............Elizabeth Anguish
Young Servant...........Charles Anthony
Old Servant.............Talmage Harper [Debut]
Guardian................John Cheek

Conductor...............James Levine

Production..............Herbert Graf
Stage Director..........Paul Mills [Debut]
Designer................Rudolf Heinrich
Lighting designer.......Gil Wechsler

Elektra received four performances this season.

Revival gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Falk


Review by Irving Kolodin in Newsday:

NILSSON BECOMES ELEKTRA

As post-performance comments have mentioned, the audience that filled every inch of the Metropolitan Opera's legal capacity paid its supreme tribute to Birgit Nilsson on her return there Friday night, after five years' absence, in Richard Strauss's "Elektra." It was, to a man (and woman) on its feet at the end, but hardly anyone moved toward an exit.
Contrary to all customs of social procedure that prevail in New York at present, no one cared about getting a car out of the parking garage, or finding a cab on a cold February night. What the audience had seen and heard was sufficiently uncommon to transcend all else.

It was an extraordinary fulfillment by Nilsson of a nearly 30-year international career which extended from Electra to Elektra. The latter was the title role of the opera which had just ended. But Electra? Where is that to be found? It is, of course, a prominent role in Mozart's "Idomeneo," in which Nilsson had made her first stage appearance outside of her native Sweden, at England's Glyndebourne Festival of 1951.

As the lady herself has been known to say, when a young colleague's next role has been mentioned: "Don't forget she's doing the Electra that's spelled with a 'c' not a 'k'." In her own case, as Electra with a 'c,' Nilsson had a raw abundance of voice, unrefined by artistry. It would be an exaggeration to say that, 30 years later, the balance has been shifted from one side to the other. But it is no exaggeration to say that very few singers of any recent time have preserved so long, so much of what they had to work with in their youth.

Lurking in the background of a Sunday column in Newsday some months ago, when her forthcoming return was first announced, were a pair of questions:

"Is she risking the high degree of esteem she earned [since her Met debut in 1959] by starting a new decade of operatic activity when most performers have packed it all in?
"Is it wise? Only she knows.

Those who have been hearing her over the long road from Electra to Elektra have, along the way, acquired a fair degree of conviction that Nilsson is not an artist given to rash or impulsive acts, professionally. She gave up singing Senta in Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" (despite the pleas of operatic managers, here and abroad) because she didn't believe the part was for her. And you will search in vain for a performance of the same composer's "Parsifal" with Nilsson as Kundry for the same reason.

The Met concert of last November in which she sang superbly in excerpts from operas by Wagner and Strauss answered a share of the uncertainty. Yes, she had quantity, and quality, of voice. But, let it not be forgotten, a concert with a Wagner orchestra behind the voice is one thing; an opera performance with a Strauss orchestra between the singer and the audience is quite another.

Foremost among those who had not forgotten it was Nilsson herself. At the outset of her first "Elektra" in New York in nine years, as the central Figure in a story of fratricide and murder, projecting the healthy hatred of a daughter (Elektra) for a mother (Klytemnestra) who had killed the husband-father (Agememnon) in his bath, her rough sounding, oddly unmusical intonation was affected by two things. First is the nature of Strauss's writing, which is hardly bel canto. The second was the plain evidence that she was, in a plain phrase, scared to death. Her breath was short, her heart very likely overbeating under the stress of circumstances.

It took 15 minutes before she cast off the first tremors. By the time a half-hour had passed, and she had been joined by the marvellously sympathetic Leonie Rysanek, as her sister-in-action, Chrysothemis, she was into the flow of it. And when the hour had passed which brings the famously ugly scene between Elektra and her debauched mother (played by Mignon Dunn), Nilsson was not merely in the stream of it, but dominating the action (as Strauss intended).

Meteorologically speaking, the state of the Nilsson voice in her first "Elektra" could be described as "Partly cloudy, with sunny interludes." But the essence of her success with the public was the nucleus of art which enabled her to get the most from it, to control the quietly reflective passages as well as the chillingly dramatic ones, and to be able to evoke the sunshine in her sound when it was the most necessary.

This came in the celebrated "Recognition" scene, when her long-lost brother Orestes (convincingly performed by Donald McIntyre) reappears to fulfill his appointed task of leading the assault on the palace, and his mother, and to reward her paramour Aegesthis (with Richard Cassilly as an uncommonly good specimen of the breed) with the lethal thrust he had well-earned. Finally, in the summarizing "Agememnon!" in which Strauss allows Elektra to echo in triumph what she had pronounced in pleading at the evening's beginning, Nilsson was celebrating not only her character's triumph over difficulties, but her own.

Of the supporting cast, which included John Cheek in a brief but memorable impersonation of the Old Guardian, the least supportive was conductor James Levine, who chose to associate his first direction of the Strauss score anywhere, with the historic return of Nilsson. Most of the evening he spent with his head in the score, and his energetic efforts directed at the orchestra, leaving much of the action on stage, and the cues thereto, in the hands of the prompter.

This "Elektra" will not be seen on television during the present sequence of performances. But will be audibly available on the broadcast of Feb. 16. I think the vocal sun will be shining brightly between 2 and 3:45 that afternoon.



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