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Seen & Heard
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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
(soprano): Elektra; Marjana Lipovšek.(mezzo):
Klytemnestra; Melanie Diener (soprano): Chrysothemis; Alfred
Muff (baritone): Orest; Rudolf Schasching (tenor): Aegisth
Chor des Opernhauses Zürich, Orchester der Opernhaus Zürich/Christoph
Martin Kušej (Stage Director)
rec. Zürich, 30 November, 4 December 2005. DDD
All regions NTSC
TDK DVWW-OPELEK [102:00]
Don’t give this
DVD to anyone as a Mother’s Day gift unless you want to alienate
your friends and family. That said, you’ll want to experience
it yourself if you have any interest whatsoever in good opera.
It’s gut-wrenchingly powerful.
Yet again, the
pared down, intelligent style of Opernhaus Zürich goes straight
to the essence of the opera and reveals new insights. This
most difficult of Strauss’s operas needs this sort of clear
conception, as its ideas are so complex that they lend themselves
to different interpretations. It is fascinating why Strauss
explored such material and why he reverted to more conventional
form afterwards. This production, conducted by Christoph von
Dohnanyi, responds to the modernity in the score. Dohnanyi’s
clear, no nonsense style brings out its angular savagery, sharpening
the dissonances. Passages like the one separating Elektra’s
first aria and the entry of Chrysothemis make a particularly
dramatic impact. Dohnanyi emphasizes the dance elements in
the score, where a mad version of a waltz underlines references
in the libretto to dance. Dance is an important underlying
thread throughout this opera, not often expressed as clearly
as this. The whirling textures and sense of movement in the
score swirl about with an almost dizzying effect, as if the
music had momentum of its own. It mirrors the idea that fate
moves inexorably in this tragedy, however much the principals
might struggle. At the end dance reaches its apotheosis. In
the final “Schweig, und tanze”, all is sublimated in movement.
Elektra relinquishes her life in a last, jerky attempt at dance,
before collapsing inert, her struggle finally over. “I dance
before you”, she sings, “to be silent and dance”.
production also brings out the juxtaposition of the individual
against the group. Elektra’s very first word is “Allein!”,
all the more startling by the stark orchestration around
it. The tight scoring of the maidservant’s ensemble is very
well realised by the precise entries and exchanges between
the singers: they function as a focused unit, even when one
of their number defends Elektra and is brutalised for doing
so. Sen Gou, in this minor role, is outstanding, her personality
coming over strongly. It’s just as well because her character
is a lesser version of Elektra’s own, and important to the
whole, even though it’s just a vignette.
Johansson interprets Elektra as punk-like and half-feral.
She’s dressed in a hoodie and fingerless gloves. She is,
after all, a victim of abuse and neglect, forced to fend
for herself. It makes the contrast between herself and her
family all the more poignant. Chrysothemis, resplendent in
white satin, with her hair neatly combed epitomises all that
Elektra might have been had fate let her remain a princess.
She may love her sister, but her obsession with marriage
and status is fundamentally opposed to all Elektra stands
is, as she sings “without father or brother, I am mocked”.
When Elektra buries the apparition of the little blonde girl
in a white smock, it’s as if she’s burying that part of herself – literally
her “inner child”, to use a term Strauss would perhaps have
understood had it been current in his time.
many ways this characterisation is more disturbing than the
more usual portrayal of Elektra as a deranged madwoman with
whom an audience can’t really identify. Johansson’s intense
delivery is very effective. This isn’t music where beauty
of tone matters so much as an ability to reflect in the nuances
of the voice the wildness in the score. It’s an extremely
straining role vocally, yet also requires acting skills to
round out the portrayal. Johansson even manages to cross
her eyes, a detail the camera picks up more acutely than
would be possible on stage.
portrayal of Elektra is more convincing and sympathetic because
she comes over as a “normal” woman with complex emotions.
It isn’t just about avenging her father, who’s barely sketched
in even in the libretto. The real dynamic is between mother
and daughter, brother and sister, and the two sisters. Thus
the element of sexual ambiguity that runs throughout this
production. The maidservants include men in lipstick, suspenders
and stockings. It’s important because so much in this opera
does deal with sexual stereotypes. It’s much more than just
contrasting Elektra and Chrysothemis. Klytemnestra and Aegisth
run a court where “proper” roles are overturned, just as
they usurped the authority of Elektra’s father. Aegisth wears
more lipstick and rouge than the queen. The woman who oversees
the maidservants is uncompromisingly butch, and Klytemnestra
canoodles with her advisors. When Elektra sings of the “strong
arms” that will lead Chrysothemis to the nuptial bed, Johansson
leans over her sister: the body language is explicit. This
ambiguity also explains the intensity of the exchange between
Elektra and Orest. Of course the music is lyrical, but the
text reminds us that all is not quite as it seems. Elektra
sings of “white nudity of her body” yet recoils from Orest’s
embrace because she feels “unkempt, dirty and degraded”.
set itself reflects the ambiguity. Instead of a flat stage,
the action takes place on an undulating floor of carpets
in which are buried “holes” in which Elektra can disappear,
such as when Klytemnestra and her servants converse. Later,
as Orest’s actions break down the claustrophobic atmosphere
of the dungeon, multiple doors appear on the wings, through
which Orest’s followers, dressed in white, pour through freely.
When Orest is reinstated, the stage fills with dancers, male
and female, dressed in white feathers and sequins. This works
better than it sounds, because it’s such a contrast to the
darkness that’s come before.
fine singing is also a feature of this production. Predecessors
like Fassbänder, Varnay and Rysanek are hard to excel, but
her Klytemnestra is a well rounded and surprisingly human portrayal.
Good performances all round and an extremely well thought through
production make this a valuable new take on this most challenging
of Strauss operas.
see also review by Tony Haywood
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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