Monday, August 12, 2002

[8/12/2012] In "Elektra," a "recognition" scene in which neither party actually recognizes the other (continued)


A celebrated partnership: Birgit Nilsson as
Elektra and Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis


The role really demands the vocal weight of a full-fledged dramatic soprano, and such singers are generally in such limited supply that they often feel they might as well go all the way and attempt Elektra Before we move on, then. I thought we would pay a tribute of sorts to one anomalous case: Leonie Rysanek.

Rysanek actually made a career specialty of Chrysothemis, a role to which she was perfectly suited. Throughout her career she was asked frequently by impresarios and conductors to sing Elektra but only relented for the film directed by Götz Friedrich, with a studio-recorded soundtrack conducted by her longtime cohort Karl Böhm. About a million live versions of her Chrysothemis have been issued. I thought we would hear her in this chunk with the ranking Elektras of the 1950s through 1970s. (It's important to bear in mind that for all her voice's size and potential beauty, it had built-in structural problems that sometimes intruded minimally and sometimes took over the voice.)

By way of dramatic context: At this point Elektra has just been through a bruising confrontation with her mother -- bruising mostly to Klytämnestra, who for all her brutality toward Elektra would desperately love some sort of kindly contact, or why would she admit to her daughter, "I have no good nights"? The scene was interrupted by the arrival of news from the outside world which has the startling effect of lighting the queen up with joy. Elektra is left unable to imagine what her mother has been told. She's about to find out.

Chrysothemis, "Orest! Orest ist tot!" ("Orest! Orest is dead!")
[CHRYSOTHEMIS rushes in through the courtyard gate, howling loudly like a wounded animal.]
CHYRSOTHEMIS: Orest! Orest is dead!
ELEKTRA: Be quiet!
CHYRSOTHEMIS: Orest is dead!
I came out -- they knew it there already. They were all
standing around and they all knew it already.
Only we didn't.
ELEKTRA: No one knows it.
CHYRSOTHEMIS: They all knew it!
ELEKTRA: No one can know it, for it is not true.
It is not true! It is not true! I tell you, however,
it is not true!
CHYRSOTHEMIS: The strangers stood by the wall. The strangers
who were sent here to announce it: two --
an old one and a young one. They had
already told everyone. They were all standing
in a circle around them and they all,
all knew it already.
ELEKTRA: It is not true!
CHYRSOTHEMIS: No one thinks of us. Dead! Elektra, dead!
Died in a foreign land! Dead!
Died there in a foreign land,
by his own horses killed and dragged along.
[She sinks down on the doorstep beside ELEKTRA. A YOUNG SERVING MAN hurries out of the house and stumbles over the sisters.]

Leonie Rysanek (s), Chrysothemis; Astrid Varnay (s), Elektra; Cologne Radio Orchestra, Richard Kraus, cond. Broadcast performance, 1953

Leonie Rysanek (s), Chrysothemis; Christl Goltz (s), Elektra; Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Aug. 26, 1955

Leonie Rysanek (s), Chrysothemis; Inge Borkh (s), Elektra; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Joseph Rosenstock, cond. Live performance, Mar. 25, 1961

Leonie Rysanek (s), Chrysothemis; Birgit Nilsson (s), Elektra; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Thomas Schippers, cond. Live performance, Dec. 10, 1966


I think it's only natural, humanly speaking, when we've been through a really grueling ordeal, to carry a nice fat chip on our shoulder, a chip that says to one and all, "You see what I have suffered? You see?" Which is, I think, part of his mindset when he finally slips back to Mycenae following his unimaginably horrendous exile, which Aeschylus after all needed not one or two but three plays to document, the trilogy we know as the Oresteia.

I think the scene itself will make clear what Orest thinks he is doing at this moment, while he waits (as he insists so emphatically, "I must wait here") to be summoned to the palace. But life is full of surprises, and the poor boy is about to get a shocker.

I think we could forgive Orest if, upon his interminably delayed and necessarily super-secret return, he's enjoying the feeling of superiority that comes from knowing he has suffered about as much as any human in history ever suffered. While he waits, though, he encounters a hideous, disgusting creature, and when he finally figures out who she is -- actually he never does figure it out; she has to tell him, and he still doesn't believe it -- he's going to realize that his suffering has been, by comparison, a walk in the park.


I thought it would be useful to once again have the crucial moment of recognition in our heads. And extraordinary as they are, what's most extraordinary here isn't the harmonically out-on-the-fringes outburst that depicts the extreme disorder of poor Elektra's mind or the astonishing beauty of the safely tonal murmurs of "Orest!," but the orchestral transition from the one to the other, bringing us to the closest thing we will ever witness Elektra having to a moment of mental peace.
ELEKTRA [struck by the STRANGER's tone]: Who then are you?
[The gloomy old servant, followed by three other servants, rushes in silently from the courtyard, prostrates himself before THE STRANGER, kisses his feet, the others his hands and the hem of his garment.]
ELEKTRA [almost beside herself]: Who are you then? I am frightened.
THE STRANGER [gently]: The dogs in the courtyard recognize me,
[more intense] but my sister -- not!
ELEKTRA [crying out suddenly]: Orest!
[Orchestral outburst]
ELEKTRA [very softly, trembling]: Orest! Orest! Orest!

Alessandra Marc (s), Elektra; Samuel Ramey (bs), Orest; Vienna Philharmonic, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded September 1995

Birgit Nilsson (s), Elektra; Tom Krause (b), Orest; Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded 1966-67


Paul Schoeffler (1897-1977), seen here as Pizarro in Beethoven's Fidelio (from the 1955 reopening of the Vienna State Opera, finally rebuilt after being something like half destroyed in Allied bombing during World War II), was a celebrated Orest. Below, we hear him in the complete Recognition Scene.

I'm going to simply accept the track divisions of this CD issue of the recording of the complete Recognition Scene which was included on the Eurodisc (later RCA) LP of Strauss scenes that Christa Ludwig recorded in either 1963 or 1964 with her then-husband, bass-baritone Walter Berry. (As I recall she did the duo LP one of those years and a solo LP, with repertory including Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene and Ariadne's great monologue, the other.) There's nothing especially logical about these divisions. The CD editor just thought people might want to be able to arrive directly at these particular moments.

Ludwig sensibly never did sing Elektra; she always had in her mind that this was the role that her mother -- who was, like her, a mezzo with certain latent dramatic-soprano potentialities -- had been lured into singing, by none other than the young Herbert von Karajan, with disastrous results for her voice. Luckily, though, we have this complete Recognition Scene, handsomely sung by both Ludwig and Berry, and surprisingly alertly conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser, a conductor of whom I didn't often think fond thoughts.

A couple of notes about the English texts below. (1) You'll see that I have basically stuck to the German forms of the Greek names, in the interest of sanity. (2) Although Hofmannsthal and Strauss made no attempt to conceal the identity of the mysterious messenger who turns out to be Orest -- and after all, the audience's program will have identified the character as "Orest" -- I have designated him as "the Stranger" for as long as that's who he is to Elektra, out of respect for her. (3) Though I've tinkered with it, the translation is generally the pretty good one circulated by the publishers, Adolf Fürstner and Boosey & Hawkes, eventually credited to G. M. Holland and K. Chalmers.

(1) Elektra, "Was willst du, fremder Mensch?"
("What do you want, stranger?")

Having finally accepted the reality of the death of Orest, Elektra has tried to persuade, indeed seduce her sister into partnering with her to accomplish the death of their mother and her lover, but Chrysothemis would have none of it, earning a curse from Elektra and the stark line "Nun denn, allein!" ("Now then, alone!"). Her first task is to dig up the axe she has hidden away -- the one used by the murderers to do Agamemnon in, which she has carefully saved for use when Orest would return.

Throughout the scene what's fascinating is each of the siblings' degree of awareness of the other's identity, and in Orest's case the role he's trying to play -- of messenger bearing news to his mother of his own death; just listen to the myth-of-the-ages tone Strauss conjures for his simple line "I must wait here."
[ELEKTRA begins to dig by the wall of the house, silently, like an animal, looking round from time to time. As THE STRANGER appears in the gateway, ELEKTRA springs up hastily.]
ELEKTRA: What do you want, stranger? Why are you
wandering round in the dark, watching
what others are doing?
I have business here. What is it to do with you?
Leave me in peace.
THE STRANGER: I must wait here.
THE STRANGER: But you must
belong to the household? You are one of the maids
of this house?

Christa Ludwig (s), Elektra; Walter Berry (bs-b), Orest; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Heinrich Hollreiser, cond. Eurodisc/BMG/Tessitura, recorded c1964

(2) Elektra, "Ja, ich diene hier im Haus"
("Yes, I serve here in the house")

The Stranger tries to sticks to his role (note the strange majesty of that line "bei Tag und Nacht," "by day and night"), and Elektra to hers.
ELEKTRA: Yes, I serve here in the house.
But there's nothing here that concerns you.
be content and go.
STRANGER: I told you, I must wait here
until they call me.
ELEKTRA: Them inside there?
You lie. I know full well that the master is not home.
And she, what would she have to do with you?
THE STRANGER: I and another man
who is with me, we have a message
for the lady.
We were sent to her
because we can bear witness, that her son
Orest died before our eyes.
For he was killed by his own horses.
I was as old as he was, and his companion
by day and night.
ELEKTRA: Must I still see you?
Must you come creeping
into my sad corner,
you herald of misfortune? Can you not
blare out your message in there, where it will please them?
Your eyes stare at him, and his are moldering away.
Your mouth opens and shuts, and his
is stopped up with earth.
You are alive and he, who was better than you,
and nobler, and it was a thousand times more important
that he should live, he is dead.
THE STRANGER: Leave Orest be. He enjoyed himself
too much in his lifetime. The gods above
do not tolerate too loud a noise
of merriment. So he had to die.
ELEKTRA: But I! but I! To lie there and
to know, that the child will never come again,
never come again,
that the child abides down there
in the abyss of horror, that those inside her
are alive and enjoying themselves,
that this foul brood in its lair lives
and eats and drinks and sleeps,
while I -- in loneliness and horror such as not even
the beast of the forest knows -- I am here alone.

(3) Orest, "Wer bist denn du?"
("Who then are you?")

Finally it has penetrated to the Stranger that what's coming out of the mouth of this hideous-looking creature doesn't fit her appearance. Note that he never does "figure out" who she is; she has to tell him, and even then he doesn't seem to believe it.

From this point, however, events move swiftly. Orest has the sudden realization I referred to that, however much he has suffered, it's hardly anything to what Elektra has endured. But now he is forced with the necessity of forcing her to listen to him, and finally he has to give up the one secret that, for the sake of his own safety, he has been keeping locked inside him. And note here that he refers to himself not as "Orest" but as "Orestes."

Why? Clearly because the dramatic situation requires it. Everywhere else Strauss has enjoyed the luxury of setting the name as the simpler two-syllable "Orest." But here, in order to create the starkly simple four-syllable, double-iamb line "Orestes lebt" ("Orestes lives"), he needs the extra syllable.
THE STRANGER: Who then are you?
ELEKTRA: What does it matter to you
who I am?
THE STRANGER: You must be of kindred blood to the two
who died, Agamemnon and Orest.
ELEKTRA: Kindred? I am that blood! I am the shamefully
outpoured blood of King Agamemnon!
Elektra is my name!
ELEKTRA: He denies it!
He huffs me and takes away my name!
ELEKTRA: Because I have no father . . .
ELEKTRA: . . . nor brother, I am a laughingstock for boys!
THE STRANGER: Elektra! Elektra!
Do I behold you? Do I really see you? You?
Have they let you starve,
have they beaten you?
ELEKTRA: Never mind my dress, do not stare at it so.
THE STRANGER: With what horrors have they filled your nights?
Your eyes like ghastly.
ELEKTRA: Let me be!
THE STRANGER: Your cheeks are hollow!
ELEKTRA: Go into the house.
In there I have a sister, who is saving herself up
for festivities!
THE STRANGER: Elektra, hear me!
ELEKTRA: I do not want to know who you are.
I want to see no one.
THE STRANGER: Listen to me, I have no time.
Listen: Orestes lives.
[ELEKTRA turns around quickly.]
If you move, you betray him.
ELEKTRA: So is he free? Where is he?
THE STRANGER: He is safe and sound,
like me.
ELEKTRA: So then save him, before they
kill him.
THE STRANGER: By my father's body, I came here for that!
ELEKTRA [struck by the STRANGER's tone]: Who then are you?

(4) Elektra, "Wer bist du denn?"
("Who are you then?")

This is more or less where we came in in Friday night's preview. (Actually we picked up just a bit earlier, at Elektra's "Who then are you" at the end of the previous track.) Now, however, we allow Elektra to continue on beyond those initial three "Orest"s, and here is one place where it's especially nice to have as beautiful -- if uncharacteristically un-Elektra-ish -- a voice as Christa Ludwig's.

It's worth noting that at this point Strauss asked Hofmannsthal to add some lines to his original play text, which would give him a chance to dramatize Elektra's state of mind. He assured the wordsmith that the lines would be throwaways, which would hardly be noticed -- it was the effect he was after. Whether he was kidding Hofmannsthal, or himself, or he just changed his mind (maybe even in response to the quality of what Hofmannsthal provided him), this chunk of text is hardly thrown away.
[The gloomy old servant, followed by three other servants, rushes in silently from the courtyard, prostrates himself before the STRANGER, kisses his feet, the others his hands and the hem of his garment.]
ELEKTRA [almost beside herself]: Who are you then? I am frightened.
STRANGER [gently]: The dogs in the courtyard recognize me,
[more intense] but my sister -- not!
ELEKTRA [crying out suddenly]: Orest!
[Orchestral outburst]
ELEKTRA [very softly, trembling]: Orest! Orest! Orest!
No one is stirring! Oh let your eyes
gaze at me, dream-phantom, a vision which
has been granted me, fairer than any dream!
Sublime, ineffable, noble countenance,
oh stay with me, do not melt
into air, do not vanish from my sight.
Even if now I have to die,
and you have revealed yourself to me
and come to fetch me, then I wll die
happier than I have lived! Orest! Orest! Orest!
[As OREST comes to embrace her]
No, you must not embrace me!
Go away, I am ashamed in your sight. I do not know
how I must appear to you.
I am only the corpse of your sister,
my poor child! I know
you are horrified
at the sight of me, and et I was a king's daughter!
I think I was beautiful: When I blew out
the lamp before my mirror, I felt it with innocent awe
when the thin rays of the moon
bathed in my body's white nakedness
as in a pool, and my hair
was such that it made men tremble --
this hair, disheveled, dirty, degraded.
Do you understand, brother? I have had
to sacrifice all that I was. I have
sacrificed my modesty, the modesty that is sweet
above all things, the modesty that like the milky,
silvery vapor of the moon surrounds
every woman and keeps away horrible things
from her body and her soul. Do you understand, brother?
These precious feelings I have had to sacrifice
to our father. Do you think,
when I rejoiced in my body,
that his sighs and groans
did not penetrated to my bedside?
The dead
are jealous; and he sent me hate,
hollow-eyed hate as a bridegroom.
So I became a prophetess evermore,
and have brought forth nothing out of myself
and my body except curses and despair!
Why do you look round so anxiously? Speak to me!
Speak! But your whole body is trembling?
OREST: Let it tremble! It senses
the path along which I shall lead it.

(5) Elektra, "Du wirst es tun? Allein?"
("You'll do it then? Alone?")

Now Strauss can build the rest of the scene to its amazing climax. In Elektra's long peroration I think we have a pretty good clue that the peace of mind we witnessed briefly a moment ago is just a brief respite, that the long years of abuse have take to high a toll and that she's not going to come back from it.

Apologies for that tacky concert ending tacked on at the end. Eventually down below we're going to hear a performance that continues on the way the opera does, or would if we allowed it to here.
ELEKTRA: You'll do it then? Alone? You poor child?
[From here there's much overlapping of text.]
OREST: They who imposed this task on me,
the gods, they will be there to help me.
ELEKTRA: You will do it!
Happy is he who will perform the deed!
OREST: I will do it. I will do it speedily!
ELEKTRA: The deed is like a bed, on which the soul reposes,
like a bed of balsam on which the soul can rest,
when it is like a wound, a firebrand,
an ulcer, a flame!
OREST: I shall do it!
ELEKTRA: Happy is the one who comes to do the deed,'
happy is the one who yearns for him,
happy the one who beholds him.
Happy is the one who knows him,
happy the one who touches him.
Happyis the one who digs up the axe for him,
happy the one who holds the torch for him.
Happy, happy is the one who opens the door to him!


Inge Borkh (s), Elektra; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Orest; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 14-16, 1956

Astrid Varnay (s), Elektra; Hans Hotter (bs-b), Orest; Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Richard Kraus, cond. Broadcast performance, 1953


Simon Boccanegra has its turn -- preview and main post.


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