Musical Explanation 4/30: Elektra - Was Strauss Serious?
The production I saw of Elektra today has been hailed around the world as the great final statement from the great opera director, Patrice Chereau. It has also been hailed as a potential initial foray into the Metropolitan Opera by Esa-Pekka Salonen, suddenly hailed by the New York Times as a potential savior-music-director in the wake of James Levine's chaotic final act.
To be sure, it was musically nearly unimpeachable. Esa-Pekka's musical priorities are generally not my own, he generally tends toward linear clarity and rhythmic punch while I love musicians who give us flexibility of phrasing and the savoring of the pungent harmonic colors. But he's clearly warmed up as he's aged, and now that he's in his mid-50's, nobody can deny Salonen's mastery. With the death of Boulez, Esa-Pekka inherits the crown as the great modernist figure of our era's concert halls, and he is a far more democratic emperor than his musical forefather. Whither he goest, I will go.
In the 'battle of the Isoldes', Waltraud Meier is somewhat past her vocal prime, which as Clytemnestra is forgivable. Nina Stemme is a little past her vocal prime, which as Elektra isn't quite forgivable. But my god, these actresses. It's one thing to have one transcendent operatic performance onstage, but to have two is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The problem with this point of view is that for anyone who has a bullshit detector (and Strauss's was as finely tuned as anyone's has ever been) there is no way on God's green earth that Richard Strauss meant all this seriously, and you could tell that Chereau took this with deadly seriousness. The gesture that nearly killed the whole thing for me was the moment when Nina Stemme had to do a kind of ecstatic dance which she clearly had no idea how to interpret. Elektra is clearly supposed to take herself up with violent paroxysm of murderous ecstasy, and I could almost hear the late Chereau screaming at the soprano in my head 'NO! NO! MORE DRAMATIC! DON'T FIGHT THE AWKWARDNESS!' Clearly though, Stemme didn't believe in it, and the result was of an awkwardness that killed the effect because it suddenly reminded us that this whole opera is more than a bit absurd and kitschy.
I do not consider kitsch the great horror which many do, and to call Elektra kitsch is, in my opinion, no disservice paid to its quality. On one level, Elektra is, as my friend described it, 'advanced Wagner,' and Wagner certainly took his intellectuality very seriously, nobody ever accused Wagner of having something so self-aware as a bullshit detector. On perhaps a deeper level, Elektra is a cynical and contemptuous middle finger to Wagner, Wagnerism, and its attendant temples.
The truth is that I love Richard Strauss as I love few composers, but had I ever the sense that Richard Strauss was serious about his musical pretensions and not more interested in having a private laugh at the intellectual pretensions of his followers, I doubt I would ever have taken to his music nearly so well. Strauss, ever the practical musician and cynic, simply spent the first half of his career writing the music his public demanded. When he was financially well-off, he spent the rest of his career writing the music he wanted to write - much more influenced by Mozart and Mendelssohn than by Wagner and Liszt. His training showed him how to be a second Richard Wagner, but in his heart he wanted to be a second Mozart. As his career progressed, it is truly extraordinary how close this composer of elephantine scores came to creating a second kind of German classicism.
(Der Rosenkavalier - the aesthete finally unleashed)
I'm currently listening to the Act III prelude to Strauss's Arabella. Yet another in a long series of orchestral depictions of coitus bearing the unmistakable Richard Strauss stamp. Strauss was never so subtle or refined that he could ever leave out any graphic detail of ordinary life that he could not put into music. In those flickering string figures, t's quite difficult to mistaken it for anything but the upward vocal glissando of a woman near-orgasm, followed soon thereafter by the post-coital catching of breath. Intellectuals certainly have the right to be as earthy as they want, but its the very pedanticism of Strauss's imagination that marks him out as something other than an idea-man. No true intellectual would be so obsessively literal in his depictions. Surely he would find a manner more imaginative to imply something so graphic. Mahler certainly has his passages of erotic love music, but eroticism in Mahler is never so blatant as to be pornographic (pornophonic?). Even in such well-worn bookworms as Berlioz or Schumann, there is always an imaginative leap which one has to make in order to arrive at the musical truth without it spelled out nearly so directly as it is in Strauss.
There is a cunning to Richard Strauss, an ease of technique so obviously fluent that it borders on contempt for his audience. It's as though he's saying to us, 'You want extra-musical description? Well, I can describe anything! You want sex and violence? I'll give you so much sex and violence you'll be sick of it! You want ideas in your music? Here are your f#R^#@# ideas!" There is something about his music that so blatantly panders to the audience that how can such obvious meeting of audience expectations be completely sincere? Strauss was, in no sense, an intellectual. He was an aesthete who resented his audiences for not appreciating beauty to the extent he did, and so for large swaths of his career, he fed them a steady diet of sarcasm - some blatant, some subtly implied. The greatest Straussian conductors: Clemens Krauss, the Kleibers, Kempe, Reiner, Szell, Solti, never take Strauss particularly seriously. They always understand this sarcastic faux-intellectual virtuosity (of which Till Eulenspiegel is perhaps the most obvious self-portrait), and know precisely how to melt at the moment Strauss gives reign to his impulses toward pure beauty.
(No philsoophy. Just virtuosity. I can't imagine a time when Georg Solti won't be my favorite Strauss conductor.)
It's entirely possible that this proudly provincial American can't see modernism without the filter of how it most manifested itself in America - the gothic horror movies, the expressionistic film noirs, the campy science fiction, the sadomasochistic music videos, the sadistically violent fantasy fiction. Most Americans look at avant-garde set design in horror movies as teenage stars who were naked five minutes ago are being served up as an offer for slaughter to some psychopathic killer of our nightmares - Freddie Kruger, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lector, whomever else.... As they do their killing, we hear music straight out of Wozzeck. Many Europeans would argue, no doubt correctly, that this is a disgusting vulgarization, an utterly unworthy exploitation of the aesthetic ideals of European modernism. They would be absolutely correct. We all are what we are. But I suspect that this vitiated American modernism of exploitation is closer to the world of Richard Strauss than most of his modernist successors in Europe ever came.
If Richard Strauss was a musical philosopher, he was a very poor one. Nietzsche was quite mad by the time Strauss adapted Also Sprach Zarathustra into a symphonic poem, but I suspect that had he heard it he'd have shouted bloody murder. It's great, virtuosic music, it's also very bad Nietzsche. Intellectually, it doesn't encourage philosophical contemplation anywhere near the extent it gives you the feeling of being trapped inside a pinball machine.
For Strauss, modernism was a means to an end, always accompanied and leavened (even in Salome and Elektra) by other traits. The younger Schoenberg - the Schoenberg of Pelleas und Melisande, and the First Chamber Symphony, and the Second Strong Quartet - was surely an influence on Elektra, but Schoenberg was 'merely' a brilliant musician with ingenious ideas. Richard Strauss, on the other hand, might have been a bona-fide musical genius who assimilated one means of musical expression before moving on to the next influence - never letting any one musical waystation inhibit him from absorbing things from another as any genius should. The expressionistic dissonances of Schoenberg were a mere waystation for Richard Strauss, for whom the extreme chromaticism that leads to atonality was passe by 1910.