Another bargain priced DVD is in my clutches — Götz Friedrich’s wonderfully disturbing film of Elektra. Lately I’ve had more than one conversation which involved someone telling me I really must see this film. Now I have, and they were all right.
Would you believe it, this was my introduction to Leonie Rysanek. Previously I have known her only by formidable reputation. She lives up to it, and then some. I was ready for something pretty powerful, but I was still taken aback by just how ferociously she inhabits this role (or does it inhabit her?). The first shot of Elektra is quite extraordinary; she seems barely human. Just her sheer lack of inhibition is on its own worthy of applause. But what makes her performance for me is that she doesn’t just set the dial to monstrous and stay put. Sometimes she looks like Linda Blair grown up, hideous, manic and evil; but at other moments she’s a bit more Mrs Rochester, pale shadows of former beauty and majesty flickeringly apparent. Her voice, too, is multifaceted. At her most terrifying, it’s a voice sheer fury and vengeance, incredible but with nothing much beautiful about it; but in other moment that rage gives way to something ever so slightly softer, her sound blooms and gains a little in colour and personability. Personable? Elektra? Apparently so. You can’t just write her off as hideous and inhuman; Leonie won’t let you, and her performance is all the more (sorry — can’t resist) electrifying for it.
And that would be enough but there’s Astrid Varnay too. Not sure I know what to say about her. Her Klytämnestra is unlike anything I’ve heard or seen before. This is not a statement of adoration but certainly one of utter amazement. She’s nightmarish, grotesque. Her singing is bonechilling. I’m amazed it’s possible to watch Astrid and Leonie sharing a screen without one’s head exploding. Catarina Ligendza’s Chrysothemis doesn’t do much to help the mood of horror and lurid evil either. From a distance she looks almost like she might offer a bit of pretty, blonde relief but no. In her own, slightly less creature-feature way, she too is disturbing and disturbed and hard to watch without squirming a little. When Orest finally arrives, in the form of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he brings not only hope to Elektra but musical respite. After so much huge soprano singing, his delicate, grounded baritone is a thing of surprising beauty, a voice of (comparative) sanity and the closest thing this opera has to a moment of tranquillity. He also does a wholly admirable job of remaining pokerfaced and heroic-looking while Elektra expounds at great length on her joy (if that’s something she still experiences) at his return.
It’s relentless, horrific and absolutely brilliant — an amazing film of a pretty amazing opera. Now if I’m honest, of course, this isn’t really the side of Strauss which I fell in love with. It will be no surprise if I say that it’s Strauss in Rosenkavalier and Capriccio mode which appeals most readily to my sensibilities. Still, Big Scary Strauss has its attractions, and it doesn’t come much Bigger or Scarier than this.
Just one further thought…