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Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
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06 Sep 2007
Among the available videos of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the recently released DVD of the live broadcast from 16 February 1980 stands out for capturing the exciting of an all-star international cast that included the famous Birgit Nilsson in the title role.
For various reasons expressed in the booklet that accompanies the recording, Nilsson had been away from New York for some time, and her return for this performance was a special occasion that culminated in the live broadcast. This DVD reproduces the televised performance that conveys the immediacy of the experience at the Met. While the opening trailer is the same that has been used for other Live from the Met productions, the performance suggests the spontaneity that accompanied Nilsson’s return.
For this performance Levine used one of the Met’s reliable productions, one created by Herbert Graf and which is a conventional way of presenting the opera. The costumes by Rudolf Heinrich reflect the fin-de-siècle opulence in their stylized evocations of ancient Greece, especially in the accoutrements for Klytämnestra. Yet overall, the DVD gives the sense of being at the Met for one of the operas it has done well over the years.
Typical of the Met in 1980, the cast included Leonie Rysanek, who was also part of another video recording of this opera made around the same time that Karl Böhm led. Along with her, Mignon Dunn sang the role of Klytämnestra, with Robert Nagy as her lover Aegisth. Donald McIntyre was Orest, Elektra’s brother and the vehicle of revenge on Klytämnestra for her murder of Agamemnon, their father.
It is a quite competent performance that stands apart from other DVDs because of its single-take as a live broadcast. While some pitch problems occur, they are minor compared to the generally fine and spirited performances of all the principals. Rysanek works well with Nilsson in roles that are comfortable for both singers. As strong as both performers are, their voices are sometimes obscured by the orchestra, which emerges perhaps too strongly in the recording. It is possible to accommodate that imbalance through the fine acting that both of those performers brought to the stage.
Mignon Dunn contributed a suitably imperious quality to the role of Klytämnestra, and with it gave the part the lyrical quality that some performers eschew in deference to readings that can be closer to Sprechstimme. Likewise, Orest requires a heroic sound that must not seem like a caricature, and McIntyre captures the part well. He and the rest of the cast work well with Nilsson in bringing out the dramatic qualities of the music in this signally modern interpretation of the Greek myth. In the end, though, it is Elektra who must elicit the cathartic moment, and Nilsson delivers her part memorably. While her finale dance may not have the visual pathos that comes with the streaks of rain that characterize Böhm’s film, her mimed madness is effective in this live performance.
The disc includes the extensive curtain calls that demonstrate the respect the Met audience expressed for Nilsson and Levine. All of the curtain calls are left in, along with shots of the cast behind the curtain, as they heard the acclaim of the audience, It is particularly impressive to heard the rhythmic applause that started after almost eight minutes of the ovation and brought Nilsson out for a solo bow after twelve minutes. In addition to the opera, the DVD includes bonus tracks of Nilsson singing Isolde’s narrative from Tristan und Isolde, which Nilsson performed at the Met Centennial celebration in 1983. This concert performance of the excerpt is memorable and serves to document further Nilsson’s association with the Met and Levine.
Another excerpt included on this disc is a relatively short tribute that Nilsson gave at the 1996 twenty-fifth anniversary of Levine’s tenure at the Met. In that cut Nilsson alluded to the 1980 production of Elektra and the part it played in her career – she ended her salute to Levine with a solo Walküre call of “Ho-jo-to-ho.” A tribute to Levine, it is a valedictory to a career well sung.
James L. Zychowicz