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Strauss, R.: Elektra.

Among the unending complaints made by critics about opera directors like Peter Sellars who supposedly distort the classical composer's intention, I've never heard any objections to the even greater distortions involved in so-called concert performances of operas. Somehow it is claimed that if you reduce an opera to its alleged musical essence and put it on a concert platform, you serve both work and composer better. But if you let singers wear lavish evening dress and bellow out at the audience with no acting, stylistic principles or dramatic gestures to restrain them, you not only distort, you also mutilate an opera. After all, the composer intended the music to be an integral part of a dramatic construction. And composers, I believe, hear operatic music as bearing within it the stresses, the inflections and even the obstacles imposed on singers by the physical exertions required by acting on a stage with costumes, other singers, and so on. Opera is an extravagant art, as the title of Herbert Lindenberger's excellent book on the subject has it, and it may also be a form mainly allowing excess and superfluity. At any rate, opera is very impure and hybrid. However, as all serious scholars of the genre agree, opera is not unrestrained or formless, nor does it license totally uninhibited modes of display by contemporary performers.

The awful vulgarity, distortion and truly unoperatic excesses of the genre were exemplified as if for all time in a recent Carnegie Hall performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Lorin Maazel. To say that it did to operatic style what Operation Desert Storm did to Iraq is only to suggest what bombast and overkill can do. The vast orchestra was stretched out across the stage, over which was built a sort of V-shaped balcony (for victory in the desert?) studded with the cast of soloists. Eva Marton as Elektra stood at the front point; Brigitte Fassbaender as Klytemnestra and Elizabeth Connell as Chrysothemis stood behind her; James King and Franz Grundheber as Aegisth and Orest, respectively, stood behind them. Thus, no singer could address any other singer and roaring forward was the order of battle. To make matters worse, the auditorium was in total darkness (thus making the thoughtfully distributed libretto unreadable) except for garishly colored spotlights of lavender, red and green that shone on the singers when they sang, as well as an artful light playing about on the maestro, who conducted with a brio and brashness that produced a quite literally deafening glob of sound.

Even though the minor roles (hand-maidens, knights, etc.) were competently sung, only James King in his tiny part among the principals suggested anything like drama, address or expression. The rest simply produced enormous amounts of sound, as if what Strauss and von Hofmannsthal intended was a two-hour festival of technicolor noise. Nothing remotely like words or phrases came across, especially from Marton, who poured forth sounds of indescribable volume and power to negligible emotional or dramatic effect. Surely Maazel was to blame for so ghastly a rendition of Strauss's last effort at advanced modernity.

First performed in 1909, Elektra had an idiom intended to shock by introducing the audience to a harmonic language a step beyond Tristan and a stop short of complete atonality. Its libretto was based on Sophocles' play, brought up to date by modern psychotherapy, with decadence as an aesthetic and expressionism as a sort of extreme conveyor of dramatic action. Little of this came through in Maazel's version, which remained fixated on effects:' with scant regard for continuity, persuasiveness or stylistic manners. It was loud, attention-getting, brassy.

Perhaps I read too much into the V-shaped construction that symbolized both the idea that audiences were to be passive recipients of uninterrupted bombast and the moment's all-round triumphalism. But it contrasts starkly with an early February performance by the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. This is a remarkable group of mostly young musicians that I've heard in an impressive series of concerts in New York City. Like many other such groups, the core of their repertory is Viennese classicism, with occasional essays in Slavic or twentieth-century tonal works. Unlike some other essentially chamber groups (for example, the London Classical Players, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Orchestra of the Enlightenment and Orchestra of St. Luke's) they do not make a fetish of authenticity or eccentricity. What gave them particular distinction was revealed, for instance, in the first measures of the Schubert Fifth Symphony, which opened their Carnegie concert. After three chords and a descending scale on the dominant, the movement's main theme (an arpeggiated tonic chord) is announced, usually with considerable fussiness and teasing. Not so by Orpheus: The almost dazzling unobtrusiveness of the motif came across with elegant and simple force, the consequence of a chamber-music attitude that has instrumentalists playing together inward, so to speak, rather than outward to a conductor monopolizing control over them and the audience.

This is striking, perhaps even paradoxical, since public performance is about display, not about inwardness. On the other hand, Orpheus's programs are generally conservative and familiar, and strike one as studiously unadventurous, as if to highlight delicacy of execution and taste rather than dazzlement and virtuosity. Their soloist for the Mozart C Minor Concerto was Radu Lupu, certainly the most fastidious and self-effacing of contemporary pianists, a performer whose pianissimos, rhythmic intelligence and, yes, scales are incredible, but whose strong musical personality is expressed, like Orpheus's, by understatement and an almost stoical reflectiveness. In fine, Orpheus keeps unresolved the paradox between the required extroversion of a really communicative performance and the controlled introversion of musicians playing for and with one another.
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Title Annotation:Carnegie Hall, New York, New York
Author:Said, Edward W.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Opera Review
Date:May 6, 1991
Words:949
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