Richard Strauss - Elektra
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Mikko Franck, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, Nina Stemme, Anna Larsson, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Monika Bohinec, Norbert Ernst, Falk Struckmann, Wolfgang Bankl, Simina Ivan, Aura Twarowski, Thomas Ebenstein, Marcus Pelz, Donna Ellen, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Ulrike Helzel, Caroline Wenborne, Ildikó Raimondi
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 11 April 2015
The Vienna State Opera's new production of Richard Strauss's Elektra opens in silence at the rise of the curtain. A group of naked women cower in the corner of a filthy shower, are manhandled and hosed down by the maids of the royal house of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. It's a stark image, the women presumably slaves of the household, the maids dressed like prison camp attendants, merely following orders. They even brutally beat one of their own, the fifth maid who dares challenge their authority, authority they believe they have even above the Princess Elektra whose increasingly unstable behaviour they maliciously mock.
It's a powerful and effective scene that establishes the situation that Elektra finds herself in, and communicates it well to an audience. It's much more effective, for example, than a setting in Greek antiquity that would likely have less of the recognisable imagery of a brutal and hated regime. It's also a more objective look than we often find in productions of Elektra, the director Uwe Eric Laufenberg avoiding the more familiar subjective expressionistic depiction of the world from the view of Elektra's deranged mindset. It's set in a townhouse in Vienna, but the basement does indeed resemble "a dungeon" as Chrysothemis describes it, a dark place with a pile of coal in the background and wall-barrier slabs of concrete.
Visually, it's highly effective, particularly when a series of lifts are revealed coming up and down from the palace like a dumb-waiter. One of the lifts conveys Clytemnestra, worn down by her dreams and nightmares, fearful and paranoid. The stage for the one-act performance is well divided then, providing ambience and space for each of the characters to envelop themselves in the varying moods (increasingly tense and desperate) of the score and the expression of the singing. The space is well used, and the singing is superb, but dramatically it remains inert, and in this work, the main part of the dramatic intensity must be carried by Elektra.
It's true that the nature of the opera doesn't allow for great drama, at least not up until the final explosion of violence and its sense of cathartic release. A singer of great stamina and force is needed to carry a role like Elektra, and ther's no question that Nina Stemme is well qualified in that respect, her voice deep, resonant, and well-balanced across the range. The role however needs rather more drive and personality and Stemme can't quite fill out that aspect in her acting. She hits all the notes, but doesn't seem to be alert to the minute detail of Strauss's score, and it's hard to get the sense that she is driven, deranged, vengeful and truly despairing as the nature of her predicament and the conflicting news of the fate of Orestes swing her mind from one extreme to the next.
If Stemme isn't able to fully inhabit the character (and I don't blame anyone for not wanting to go to those very dark places that Strauss has scored in one of the most disturbing characters of any opera), the characterisation as far as the direction and the other members of the cast go is clearly well established and brilliantly performed. Gun-Brit Barkmin in particular is an outstanding Chrysothemis. This is a character who can be a little wishy-washy in comparison to the more powerful women all around her, but here Chyrsothemis seems even more driven than Elektra. Or if perhaps not driven, since she can't be spurred into action, at least much more conflicted and disturbed by the situation she and her sister find themselves in. Barkmin's singing is also wonderfully expressive, cutting clear and bright, bringing out the qualities of how her character is scored better than anyone else I've heard in the role and making it really count.
Anna Larsson likewise also brings detail and nuance to Clytemnestra. She's not imperious here or a monster, but a rather broken figure, destroyed by her own actions, hounded by nightmares, a true figure from a Greek tragedy. That's expressed as much in her appearance, in her gestures as in her singing. There's defiance here in her confrontation with Elektra that still holds the daughter at bay, but the fraying at the edges is starting to show. Elektra might sometimes appear to be a one-woman show, but the contributions of Larsson and Barkmin show how important it is to have strongly defined characters in those other key roles. Orestes and Aegisthus have lesser roles to play certainly - though they can also be developed further - and they are taken well here by Falk Struckmann and Norbert Ernst.
The manner in which the three women are developed however pays dividends at the conclusion of this Elektra. In contrast to the enhanced realism established in the earlier scenes, the set starts to reflect the horror of the madness and the violence that has been built-up and finally unleashed. The imagery has something of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', the implications similarly that of a household where all the accumulated abuse and horrors that have taken place within its walls starts to seep out. The dumb waiter starts to bring down a sequence of horrors from the upper levels of the palace, mostly unidentified, but among them certainly the executed Clytemnestra. Elektra leads an exultant dance in which she is joined by a team of dancers dressed like something out of a 50s' prom (like the ball in 'The Shining'), and is swallowed up in the celebration, leaving a shocked Chrysothemis to contemplate the horror of it all.
Elektra was broadcast
from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The
next broadcast is DON PASQUALE on 8 May with Juan
Diego Flórez. Also in May, Plácido Domingo stars in NABUCCO on 14 May and Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DER RING DES
NIBELUNGEN, conducted by Simon Rattle begins with DAS RHEINGOLD on 30 May and DIE WALKURE on 31 May. Details of how to view these
productions live at home can be found in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video