Rysanek heads strong cast in opera film `Elektra'

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When Richard Strauss set out to compose his opera ``Elektra,'' based on playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto adaptation of the Sophocles drama, he deliberately aimed to shock. Some today who are still shocked by the lurid retelling of Sophocles may not change their viewpoint after viewing the PBS telecast of the 1982 G"otz Friedrich movie of the Strauss opera (PBS, April 11, 9 p.m., check local listings). But for those who view ``Elektra'' as a compelling musical/theatrical encounter, this film will be a revelation. It has a dream cast with one glaring exception. It is also the late Dr. Karl B"ohm's final recording. And since B"ohm knew Strauss well and conducted the world premi`eres of several of the later operas, it means this is the final aural document of the last living tie to a bygone musical era.

B"ohm convinced Leonie Rysanek -- not only the greatest Strauss soprano of the postwar years, but one of the most remarkable of operatic artists -- to learn a role she would never have done (and never will do) on stage. He wanted a softer voice than is usual in the music, Miss Rysanek relates in a post-opera documentary. And how right he was. By any standards, Miss Rysanek's vocal portrayal is the outstanding ``Elektra'' of the recorded age. And the histrionic performance Friedrich coaxes out of her is one of the finest samples of operatic acting ever put to film.

As Klyt"amnestra, Astrid Varnay (herself a great Elektra) all but steals the show. Her jowly face embodies the decadence of the world Strauss/Hofmannsthal recreated in their oeuvre. The voice is no longer reliable, but the total performance is unforgettable.

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The noted German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is a menacing Orestes. Only Catarina Ligendza's Chrysothemis is from another, vastly inferior world. Perhaps she was intimidated singing the part opposite Miss Rysanek, whose Chrysothemis has been definitive for over three decades.

There is nothing pretty about this movie. Even the handsome Miss Rysanek is made to look like a harridan. Some images will shock, although some were toned down for this telecast. But they are reflections -- in only slightly too-lurid fashion -- of what the music is communicating at that moment. The relationships of each character to another are always grippingly right. And Friedrich allows his superb singing actors to act superbly.

Miss Rysanek introduces this historic document, and she is the focal point of the documentary shown at the end of the opera. In it she reminisces about working with B"ohm, recounts some delightful anecdotes about the making of the film, and gives a sense of what this ``Elektra'' meant to her. It is a fitting coda for what has to be considered the finest operatic film ever made.

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