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Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 14 )

Richard Strauss • Elektra

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s new Salzburg Elektra at the Grosse Festspielhaus centers around a wonderful set by Raimund Bauer and Daniel Dooner: A tilted concrete construction with dystopian overtones, an interior court where creatures—from the (scarcely audible) maidens in the beginning, to Elektra, to the (mute) feathered demons in the end—emerged from sharply delineated window openings and cruder holes that reach deep into anb below the ground. A timeless place in blunted gray where the equally gray-faced Elektra (Iréne Theorin) lurks. Occasional spots of color—Eva-Maria Westbroek in Chrysothemis’ desperately happy purple and Waltraud Meier in Clytemnestra’s dark ruby-red, Cruella DeVille-style dress and fur coat—stand out amidst this monochromatic world of dim lights and shadows.

The rest of the production is really taken care of by the opera itself, music and text combining for drama that works perfectly well on its own, given a good cast. With Theorin, Westbroek, Meier, René Pape (Orest), and Robert Gambill (Aegisth) and a cool set, the necessary work was done for a good night at the opera. If it didn’t go further, it might have been partly due to seats on row 25 where one could hear the singers even less than in row 15, where, although, similar vocal lacunae were reported from; partly because Daniele Gatti could not get the Vienna Philharmonic to play softly. (But then, who can?!). Apart from Gambill and Pape, understanding the text without the supertitles (both German and English easily fitting up there, thanks to the Festspielhaus’s wide stage) was impossible. Theorin went in and out of audibility, with her strongest phase in the last third, vis-à-vis Pape’s Orest. Meier had a little more bite, but it was only Westbroek who made herself heard reasonably well, thanks to her mobile character running up and down the set and getting to the ramp every time she had to sing. (As her older sister well knows, Chrysothemis, is a clever one.)

Where the production didn’t quite succeed in communicating the story (or Lehnhoff’s intentions) was the pivotal recognition scene, where Elektra’s prolonged disbelieve (even well after the actual recognition) kept Elektra and Orest apart, quite contrary to what their words indicate and with repetitive stock motions of “oh, but it cannot be”. Gambill was nicely voiced, a surprisingly honeyed Aegisth, but looked like an English country-side fop who stumbled unto the set like the unintended comic relief character in a stuffy British murder mystery. René Pape’s batman suit body armor, his greasy pony tail, his non-movement all contributed to a stale Orest; never have I seen Pape so underutilized, so wasted in a production, even as his perfect declamation and diction was of the usual greatness. His stiff presentation of the butchered body of Clytemnestra (hung upside down from an oversized meat hook with very fake blood randomly splattered across the white tiles of the, until then hidden, chamber at the back of the stage) was as strangely anticlimactic as Elektra’s final dance scene; as if it had been oddly tacked on to the opera after the murder of Aegisth: Missed opportunities, perhaps, in an otherwise plenty enjoyable production.

And if the voices, for whatever reasons, were hard to make out, at least there was plenty to hear from the orchestra. Daniele Gatti made the Vienna State Opera turn in a passionate, fine, and of course loud performance, arguably more respectful of Strauss than the singers. The highlights were the moments of Rosenkavalier-style sweetness, such as in Elektra’s monologue which became true climaxes, bathing the ears in typical, lyrical Strauss between all the harsher bits of music Elektra provides.

All photos courtesy of the Salzburger Festspiele, © Hermann und Clärchen Baus

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