Birgit Nilsson returns as 'Elektra'

Birgit Nilsson's return to opera in America, after the resolution of Internal Revenue Service difficulties, was as "Elektra" -- a role in which she had set amazing standards in the '60s.

It was a gala night at the Metropolitan. Opera people were out in droves, and on stage we had not just Miss Nilsson, but Leonie Rysanek as well, with Met music director James Levine in the pit.

It was a glorious evening, from beginning to end. Nilsson had a few problems in the opening monologue, but they were, in the overall scope, quite negligible. From then on, it was truly Nilsson matching standards of old, with an even deeper sense of the inexorable tragedy of Elektra's life -- one that will end in a macabre, fatally exultant dance when vengeance has finally run full circle.

As her sister Chrysothemis, Miss Rysanek had one of her grand evenings. It was a source of uncommon inspiration to see Nilsson and Rysanek -- who have owned these roles for so long -- redefine together the standards by which this opera will now have to be judged. In Rysanek's Chrysothemis there is no emotion left unexposed, no dramatic moment left unexploited. The generosity of Rysanek the singer, and Rysanek the actress, are a constant marvel.

Mignon Dunn has really restudied the character of Klytamnestra since her rather tenuous portrayal last season. This year, hers was a convincing, fascinating, agonized presentation of the role. Richard Cassilly's Aegisth was generous of voice and expert of characterization. Donald McIntyre was a competent Orest. Unfortunately, the various smaller maids-in-waiting and servants were generally quite under par vocally.

In the pit, James Levine's first try at this score proved to be a marvel of orchestral clarity and beauty -- the requisite savagery larger than life (as it must be), with the melody, too often ignored, memorably exploited. And given that Levine grows into a score at each successive performance, one can only await with more than anxious anticipation the 15th or 20th performance, for by then, his will be them great "Elektra" of the day.

Would that the production were not so unrelievedly ugly, that the costumes were not so generally hideous (Miss Rysanek wisely brought her own). Ovations went on for nearly half an hour, with the greatest share lavished on Miss Nilsson and Miss Rysanek -- each the embodiment of what the term "prima donna" really means in an age that is seeing less and less of the real thing. "Elektra" can be heard on the Texaco broadcast this Saturday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. , Eastern standard time.

Levine's presence was also felt in the return of "Otello" to the Met after its initial run this fall.

Richard Cassily was assuming the title role for the first time at the Met, though he is no stranger to the role. Cassilly is tall, large, almost burly. His tremendous tenor -- a true heroic instrument -- can ring out with frightening intensity, yet can be modulated to an almost sweet and tender sound.

He is an uncommonly intelligent artist, who thinks his roles through in acute detail and projects, word for word, all the emotional twists and turns. His "Otello" was terrifying in its fury, haunting in its introspection, and a marvel of declamatory strength. Even though the voice becomes rather nasal at times, and can glide distressingly in and out of pitch, here was truly a Met-caliber Otello to be reckoned with the very finest.

Milnes has rarely sounded more secure and opulent vocally, and he has altered some of his more hammy moments, making them more to the point as Iago. Teresa Zylis-Gara's Desdemona is a compelling, passionate creature, and she was in generally fulsome, limpid voice, a few rough moments aside.

In the pit, Levine took his cues from the huge Cassilly instrument and gave an account of the Verdi Score that was the usual lyric marvel, with an added monumental and massive power in the big moments. The lead up to the finale of Act 2 -- from Cassilly's terrifying cries of "sangue" through to the end of the Otello-Iago duet "Si pel ciel" -- was as awesome as it has ever been in the house.

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