Friday 10 July 2015

Strauss - Elektra (Zurich, 2015 - Zurich)

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Opernhaus Zürich, 2015

Lothar Koenigs, Martin Kušej, Hanna Schwarz, Evelyn Herlitzius, Emily Magee, Michael Laurenz, Christof Fischesser, Reinhard Mayr, Hamida Kristoffersen, Alexandra Tarniceru, Iain Milne, Marion Ammann, Judit Kutasi, Julia Riley, Irène Friedli, Sen Guo, Ivana Rusko

Zurich - 3 July 2015

I had already seen Martin Kušej's production of Elektra for the Zurich Opera House on BD, and I've heard Evelyn Herlitzius sing the leading role impressively in Patrice Chereau's production for Aix-en-Provence in 2013, so I thought I had a good indication of what to expect viewing from this performance at the 2015 Festspiele Zurich. The introduction of Herlitzius into the production, some minor adjustments to the direction, and Lothar Koenigs' conducting of the Zurich orchestra however changed everything.

Well, perhaps not everything, but there was a considerable adjustment of emphasis that changed the whole tone and mood of the production. What I recall principally from the BD recording of the Zurich Elektra in 2005 is Eva Johansson's characterisation of Electra as a moody teenager. She might be slight in stature, but that kind of characterisation was never going to work with the rather more intense kind of performance that Evelyn Herlitzius brings to this role. The moody teenager in the yellow hoodie is replaced by a more sinister edge of dark violence in the 2015 revival of the production.

I've seen Elektra performed many times and have often been struck by the sheer force of the score, particularly in a live environment, but until now I don't think I realised just how dark a work it can really be. In Elektra, Richard Strauss has surely composed some of the most violent music ever written. Other than Reimann's Lear, I can't think of anything else that compares. That wasn't what I expected from this particular production, but under Lothar Koenigs' direction, you could feel it reverberate right through to the bone. What is there in the music and in its performance however has to be matched on the stage in order for that kind of impact to be fully felt.

I've seen Herlitzius sing Elektra before and I've heard Herlitzius sing live before, but I've never heard her sing Electra before in live performance. I've never noticed her vibrato so pronounced as it appeared when she sings her first lines in the opera. It's not so noticeable when it's more fully enveloped in Strauss's score, and when it is the combination of her voice with the score creates an extraordinarily powerful, chilling and almost terrifying expression of potential violence.

Expressionistic it might be, but Elektra is far from abstract in its violent intent, and that needs to be reflected in the direction. In this revival, Martin Kušej's direction becomes one that sheds a light on the pervading madness. That's there in the set design to some extent, in the undulating ground, in the masses of semi-naked figures twitching like inmates of an asylum, and in the padded doors that open to let the light flood into those dark corners. Padded on the outside however, this is not just a representation of the inner mind of Electra. What comes out more clearly in this revival is that the madness extends to her murderous, tormented family.

Such is the intensity of Electra's desire for revenge on the murder of Agamemnon that you almost think that the arrival of her brother Orestes is a necessary delusion, one that comes as she topples over the edge into her dance of madness. You soon realise however that there's just as much dysfunction between Chrysothemis and Electra, between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and between Electra and Orestes. They way they behave with each other is all wrong, there's something dark and twisted in each of them that is emphasised and brought out strongly in the score. You look at this production and it really brings it home. What a family!

Evelyn Herlitzius is utterly convincing. The way she pushes the pitch and climbs to those high notes isn't the prettiest, but the torment of Electra's condition isn't the prettiest either. A measure of that, and of the emphasis that it is given to the family relationships in the production, is with the intensity of how she cries out the names of Agamemnon and Orestes. You can almost feel her cries pinning the audience back in their seats. She sustains that performance consistently in line with the intent of the production throughout, and it's just gripping.

Hanna Schwarz shows that there is some vulnerability in the domineering Clytemnestra, and Emily Magee sings Chrysothemis in a way that indicates that she is no voice of reason. With equally intense, disturbing interpretations by Christof Fischesser as Orestes and Michael Laurenz as Aegisthus, this was a very strong cast that played to Lothar Koenigs' conduction with maximum impact, with not even the Brazilian dance troupe lessening the crushing inevitability of all of them heading to their destruction.

Links: Opernhaus Zürich