OP3282. ELEKTRA, Live Performance, 1977, Onondaga County Civic Center, Syracuse, NY, w. Christopher Keene Cond. Syracuse S.O., w. Olivia Stapp, Natalie Costa, Lili Chookasian, Alan Crabb, Richard Cross, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-762.
“Occasionally the historic performance market brings in a totally unexpected, spectacular sleeper - and this ELETKRA is one such miracle. Although some of the names in the headnote will be known to some readers of these lines, I suspect they require introduction to most others. Christopher Keene was a fine conducting talent who never quite realized his full potential. While he served as director of the Syracuse Symphony from 1975 to 1984, co-founded the Spoleto Festival USA in 1977, and founded the Long Island Philharmonic in 1979 (serving as its music director until 1990), his longest and most prominent association was with New York City Opera from 1969 until his death from AIDS. (I saw him there in his last conducting appearance, leading the U.S. debut of Hindemith’s opera MATHIS DER MALER, a scant three weeks before his passing.) He was a dynamic conductor who was inhibited by emotional insecurities; he struggled with both alcoholism and his homosexuality, and could freeze up in high-pressure situations such as his few guest-conducting appearances with major orchestras. Here, however, he is firing on all eight cylinders. The immediately striking feature of this performance is its great lyricism. ELEKTRA is an opera where it is easy to play up the shock value in the score by emphasizing sudden fortissimo outbursts, dissonant chords, sudden harmonic twists, and so forth. Keene reminds us that Strauss was a great composer of Lieder by bringing out the many pages of genuine melodic beauty (only Giuseppe Sinopoli’s studio recording is comparable here, in my experience) and in so doing heightens rather than shortchanges the gruesome neuroticism of the drama. He is also incisive in tempos and rhythms, and has a fine ear for balances within the orchestra and between the orchestra and the singers. And, if the Syracuse Symphony can’t match Berlin and Vienna for Rolls-Royce opulence of sound, it belies its status as a regional orchestra with a blazing performance in which every player is giving well over 110 per cent, including a good deal of fine work by gifted first-chair section leaders.
So far as I can find, Olivia Stapp has virtually no recorded legacy, her only studio venture was a disc with Sherrill Milnes of songs by Charles Tomlinson Griffes; there is a superb Alfano CYRANO DE BERGERAC with her available on Opera d’Oro - but she has a near-legendary reputation as a dramatic soprano among opera cognoscenti. (She made her Met debut in November 1982 on a few hour’s notice, substituting in TOSCA for an indisposed Shirley Verrett; she had not sung the part in 18 months and had to practice the part on her shuttle flight and taxi ride in from Washington DC.) She was a noted Lady Macbeth and, as one might expect from that, here she is a superb Elektra. In line with Keene’s conducting, what is most striking about her portrayal is not just her total vocal security in every dimension, nor her depth of psychological insight - both evident in abundance - but also her lyrical beauty. This Elektra is not simply a one-dimensional, vengeance-obsessed, half-demented harridan; she is also truly a woman, fully capable of tenderness, love, and loyalty. Hear her, and your conception of this voice is permanently altered, and entirely for the better.
The other cast members are fully worthy of their roles. Lili Chookasian (who also sang at the Met) had the most extensive and prominent recording career of the participants here, working with Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, Thomas Schippers, Walter Susskind, and Herbert von Karajan, and being especially noted for her interpretation of Mahler’s DAS LIED VON DER ERDE. Her Klytamnestra is richly voiced but never opaque in tone, at once regally queenly and yet morbidly preoccupied with gnawing guilt. Natalie Costa was primarily known for her work in Broadway musicals (MAN OF LA MANCHA and KISMET, among others) rather than opera, but she has a thoroughly well-trained voice, attractive in timbre and having real mettle. She is a passionate Chrysothemis, no wilting wallflower before her intimidating sister, and one also notes with pleasure her fine German diction. A nice plus here is that these three voices are so individual in sound that one can immediately tell which of the three is singing without resort to a libretto. An even greater plus is that - rarity of rarities - two supporting male roles and comprimario parts for once are not shortchanged by sub-standard casting. Bass-baritone Richard Cross - still a noted vocal teacher at Yale and Juilliard - is doubtless best remembered for his one high-profile studio recording, as Oroveso opposite Joan Sutherland in her 1964 studio NORMA. Here he provides a sepulchral, rock-steady Orestes. And, thank heavens, for once the role of Aegisth is not afflicted with some washed-out bleaty or wobbly or whiny tenor, but is given a fine rendition by Alan Crabb, who actually spot-on sings rather than barks all his notes without slighting his character’s spineless decadence. Every comprimario part is cast with a voice that is a pleasure to hear. The final chords are deservedly followed by thunderous applause and enthusiastic cheers and whistles.
For the vivid original stereo sound quality - competitive with many pre-digital studio recordings - we can thank FANFARE’s own Henry Fogel, who was the recording producer during his time as program director and vice-president of Syracuse radio station WONO-FM from 1963 to 1978. The performance takes the now well-nigh universally observed cut in the middle of the score….As usual, YSL provides only an inset with track titles (no timings) and a couple of photos. While I wouldn’t want to forfeit my treasured recordings led by Solti, Sinopoli, or Mitropoulos (the fabled live 1957 Salzburg performance), this remarkable concert performance is fully their equal and could easily be the only ELEKTRA in your collection. Yes, it’s that good; recommended with boundless enthusiasm. Copies can be ordered from Norbeck, Peters, and Ford (norpete.com).”
- James A. Altena, FANFARE