Tuesday 6 August 2013

Strauss - Elektra

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2013

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Patrice Chéreau, Evelyn Herlitzius, Waltraud Meier, Adrianne Pieczonka, Mikhail Petrenko, Tom Randle, Franz Mazura, Florian Hoffmann, Sir Donald McIntyre, Renate Behle, Bonita Hyman, Andrea Hill, Silvia Hablowetz, Marie-Eve Munger, Roberta Alexander

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 19 July 2013

In terms of theatrical expression, Strauss's Elektra has minimal but nonetheless very specific requirements. What everyone remembers about any production of this extraordinary work is how it handles the final scene of violent release from all of the tension, bitterness and threats of dire vengeance that has led up to it. The build-up to that finale meanwhile is best expressed through the performance of the singer in the role of Electra. In the case of the 2013 Aix-en-Provence production the appropriate tone is achieved by Patrice Chéreau in one of his all-too-infrequent returns to opera directing, and through a stunning performance of Evelyn Herlitzius.

The set design at Aix is fairly straightforward and classical in design, reminding one of Chéreau's staging of Janacek's From The House of the Dead at Aix in 2007. There's some correlation in these two very different works, since Mycenae is effectively a prison for Electra and for the servants who work alongside her at the palace of her mother Clytemnestra and her step-father Aegisthus. The impression given here is very much that of a women's prison and it's a particularly bleak one. It's grey, bare, dark and ominous with surrounding high walls at the back that create an oppressive ambience, the only outstanding feature a small ditch in the ground where Electra dwells and expresses her grief in tirades of hatred against the murderers of her father Agamemnon and her despair that her brother Orestes isn't there to exact revenge.

In a single act opera, with very little dramatic action or scene changes, the stage is often used to reflect the inner mind of Electra's soul in torment. If that's the case here - and Elektra is very much a psychological drama - then it's a typically bleak and unrelenting depiction of psychopathy. There are no soft edges here in Richard Peduzzi's sets, and other than the surround to the door leading to Clytemnestra's chambers, there are no curves either. It's all blocky with harsh angles - not even expressionist, but composed entirely of sharp right-angles that suggest not so much a fractured mindstate as one of solid determination of purpose. There is as little variation in this appearance as there is little variation in the overall tone of the work, the only set movement occurring when a platform is extended at the climax to reveal the murdered Clytemnestra to Aegisthus.

Chéreau's strengths as a director however extend much further than merely establishing a suitable mood or moving the performers across the stage. In the case of Elektra, where the work is so perfectly written and meticulously composed (is there any work that is so musically expressive of the slightest variations of mood, action, drama and internalised sentiments than this one?), it's more of a challenge not to interfere too much and Chéreau clearly recognises this. The director's duty in Elektra, more so than perhaps in any other work, is to serve the music and the libretto and find a way to transfer the incredibly strong emotions credibly and meaningfully into actions. Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting is accordingly attentive to detail, weaving, sweeping and driving without ever being overly forceful. For his part, Chéreau recognises the archetypal female psychologies expressed in Electra, Clytemnestra and Chrysothemis, as well as parallels that exist between Electra and Hamlet and all these references feed into the character development even if they don't need to be made explicit in the production itself.

The greater part of the force of Elektra however is expressed through the singing of the highly challenging role of Electra herself, and Evelyn Herlitzius proves to be well up to the task.  Having seen Herlitzius recently as Kundry in Parsifal, the German soprano is increasingly proving to be a singer of real dramatic power and substance in the most challenging Wagnerian and Strauss roles. All the force that is required is here in a committed performance that is as unwavering and unyielding as Electra's personality and madness is concentrated into her singleminded desire for revenge. Evidently, there's a lot of writhing around in torment and a dance of death to deal with as well (which doesn't actually end in Electra's death here), but Herlitzius deals with the physical demands of the role tremendously well and is fully deserving of the huge acclaim that greets her at her curtain call.

Elektra is largely a one-person opera, but the singing and the characterisation elsewhere needs to be up to the mark and most of the other main performances are strong here. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka comes across most impressively with an outstanding performance as Chrysothemis that provides the necessary contrast and counterbalance to the darkness of Electra's position. Waltraud Meier on the other hand seems to be holding back a little here, but she comes alive powerfully in her scenes with Evelyn Herlitzius. Mikhail Petrenko is a fine Orestes, but even though it's a small role Tom Randle doesn't have the right kind of voice or the necessary force to sing Aegisthus.

Elektra at the Aix-en-Provence Festival is available for viewing on-line (with French subtitles) from the ARTE Live Web site. There appear however to be region restrictions preventing viewing outside of France and Germany.