Birgit Nilsson’s Elektra

I grew up with the Solti Ring and Nilsson’s Immolation Scene still makes the hair on my neck bristle.  The 1980 video recording of her performance in the title role of Strauss’ Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera really doesn’t have the same effect.  The voice is accurate enough, there’s still a lot of power and the vocal acting is good but somehow the voice seems to have hollowed out and to lack resonance.  Admittedly she’s not helped by the recording which seems to favour the orchestra over the voices fairly consistently.  The other sopranos suffer from the acoustic/recording too but come off better and if Leonie Rysanek really had a high fever it’s not obvious.  Mignon Dunn’s Clytemnestra is also well sung.  The orchestra plays wonderfully for James Levine and gets much better treatment from the sound engineers.

The production (apparently by Herbert Graf with revival direction by Paul Mills) features a boring rocky wall with a sort of cave/gateway and minimum stage movement.  It’s almost a misnomer to call it a “production”.  Coupled with Brian Large’s incessantly close up camera work the effect is almost more of a concert than a staged performance.  At least one can see the intensity of Nilsson’s performance even if a lot of the time the acting range is limited to stock gestures.  At least in that respect she’s better Donald McIntyre, the Orestes, who seems to have graduated from the cardboard cut out school of opera acting.

The picture quality is fairish  and it’s 4:3 aspect ratio.  The sound was originally stereo but has been remastered for surround (DTS and Dolby) using DGG’s proprietary process.  As noted it’s kinder to the orchestra than the singers.  There are German, English, French, Spanish and Chinese  subtitles.  The trilingual booklet features track listing, synopsis and one of those sycophantic essays that the Met likes to commission about “favourite sons/daughters”.  The 50 odd minutes of bonus material are in the same self-congratulatory vein.

It’s a shame that we don’t have a record of Nilsson in this role at the height of her powers and in a better production.

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10 thoughts on “Birgit Nilsson’s Elektra

  1. Of the versions of Elektra on DVD, which one have you found you enjoyed the most? I’ve got one version on the pile to watch (this one) but it’s not an opera I’m familiar with, and two or three versions of anything are usually better than one.

  2. Thanks for the review! Sorry the DVD didn’t come off better, as Nilsson’s Elektra is the sort of thing one wants recorded. I’ve watched the Behrens/Levine DVD, and found it riveting. Video direction not fabulous, but the intensity of Behrens, and of the orchestra, is incredible. Deborah Voigt is Chrysothemis, and Fassbaender is Klytaemnestra, so pretty luxurious all around. I’ve also heard good things about the recent-ish Salzburg production?

  3. You had to be there. I was at one of the performances in this run–Nilsson had been absent from the Met for years because of tax problems. It was like a rock concert, much of the audience actually rushed the stage at he end! To tell you the truth I don’t remember a whole lot about the pefrormance itself (except that Birgit and Leonie were two wild and crazy girls) but I will never forget the experience. A total rush.

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