"Elektra," Richard Strauss' uncompromisingly grim opera of treachery, insanity and civilization gone utterly amok in ancient Mycenae, is a musical work uniquely suited to television.
The very absence of an audience and the cameras' freedom to probe recesses of the murdered Agamemnon's crumbling palace feed the claustrophobia and paranoia that so heighten "Elektra's" impact.
So moving is Strauss' work that some opera lovers -- I am one of them -- will go out of their way to see any production of "Elektra." But I cannot recall any that packed the dramatic wallop of tonight's version on "Great Performances" (9 to 11:30 p.m. on Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV stations, with stereo simulcast on WETA-FM 91).
To give this extended one-act nightmare a memorable visual dimension, director Goetz Fridrich, the head of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, and designer Josef Svoboda had the brilliant idea of filming it in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Vienna. Though Strauss and his great librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal created this version of Sophocles' tragedy before either world war, its premonition of what was to come for civilization has never seemed clearer than in this setting's juxtaposition of decaying ruins with neo-Bauhaus sterility.
Musically, the performance is a major operatic document. It was the last project of Strauss' prote'ge', conductor Karl Bo hm, who died soon after. The performance by Bo hm and the Vienna Philharmonic is magnificent.
The cast includes soprano Leonie Rysanek, whose voice is in fine form and who exhibits unmatched dramatic and textual subtlety, particularly in the pivotal and eloquent recognition scene. As Orestes, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is heroic and compassionate.
Astrid Varnay, a former Elektra herself, is stunning as the demented Klytemnestra. Only Chysothemis, Catarina Ligendza, seems a bit out of her element in this overpowering company.