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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra - Tragedy in one act, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal(1907)
Elektra – Eva Johansson (sop); Klytemnestra – Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo); Chrysothemis – Melanie Diener (sop); Aegisthus – Rudolf Schasching (tenor); Orestes – Alfred Muff (bass); Tutor – Reinhardt Meyer (bass-bar); Overseer – Margaret Chalker (sop);Young Servant – Andreas Winkler (tenor); Old Servant – Morgan Moody (bass); Confidante – Cassandra McConnell (sop); Trainbearer – Christine Zoller (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Zürich Opera/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. ‘live’, Opernhaus Zürich, 30 November, 4 December 2005
Directed for the stage by Martin Kušej
Directed for video by Felix Breisach
Sets by Rolf Glittenberg, costumes by Heidi Hackl

Austrian director Martin Kušej has courted controversy in the past with his operatic productions. He is fond of examining the psychological and emotional extremes of the work in question, an approach that can work brilliantly in the right piece, such as his recent Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Unfortunately his concept for this Zürich Elektra emerges as a stylistic mish-mash, with whatever good points there are offset by too many ‘director’s touches’.
It’s basically a modern dress production set in what appears at first to be a large warehouse with doors going off in all directions. Other set designers have used the multiple doors idea, as it makes for easy and fluent entrances and exits while keeping a claustrophobic feel. In fact, this felt like it could be the setting for Bluebeard’s Castle or Kafka’s The Trial. The doors are padded, so ultimately I guess we’re meant to view the House of Agamemnon as a sort of asylum, which is fair enough. The eponymous central character is dressed as a disaffected youth, punk-like with trainers and hoodie. This has also been done before, most recently in the misguided Stuttgart Ring, with its bovver-booted Brünnhilde railing against daddy Wotan. The depth to which this royal palace has sunk is shown by most of the servants cavorting around in fishnet tights and French maid outfits, obviously indulging in depraved rituals. This works well at first but quickly becomes tiresome, even laughable, especially as the TV director’s love of extreme close-up betrays the many body stockings being worn as well as quite a few of the cast tripping up on the uneven stage surface as they rush around frantically.
Vocally Eva Johanssen is strong though her vibrato widens in the higher, taxing passages. She looks the right age but certainly doesn’t appear ‘starved’ or ‘in rags’ as the text indicates. Melanie Diener is a rather bland Chrysothemis and Marjana Lipovšek a commanding but shrill Klytemnestra. Some moments are well judged, such as a still and intense nightmare scene, where Dohnányi’s subtle conducting allows the polyphonic lines to really sing rather than just give us ‘in your face’ dissonance. The recognition scene is movingly staged, only really undermined by Alfred Muff’s commanding Orestes, supposedly Elektra’s younger brother, looking roughly twice as old as her.
Other parts are well sung but the whole enterprise ends up being intensely irritating. Why spoil the powerful ending, Elektra’s dance of death, by bringing on a glittering troupe of dancers who look like the Tiller Girls? Also, Kušej’s has Elektra gently swaying as if in a trance before she drops, rather than wildly cavorting, which is fine, but he then spoils this by having her get back up again and stare defiantly out at the audience as the final chords crash out, totally subverting Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s intentions. There are other miscalculations, like giving Aegisthus a gun which then has to be conveniently pick-pocketed by Elektra so he can then be murdered by the axe. There’s another, earlier ‘director’s touch’ I didn’t like when Elektra is frantically digging for the same axe; he brings on a young girl with blonde hair and white dress who walks towards Elektra and first embraced then symbolically buried by her. What? Are we meant to think this is the child Elektra, untainted and innocent before all hell breaks loose in her household, and who can never rest in peace again? Who knows, and indeed these concepts might provide gossip after a night in the theatre but are likely to prove too idiosyncratic for the DVD library, even with a strongly lyrical and unhistrionic performance from the pit.
No, the fact is that when I turned back to my favourite DVD of this incredible score, the mid-1980s Vienna version from Kupfer and Abbado (see review), my first feeling was – this is more like it. The production has the right balance of modernity and classicism, Kupfer’s charnel-house inhabited by barely human creatures that slither around the outskirts of the decaying palace. The singing and acting are inspired, especially Brigitte Fassbaender’s magnificently depraved Krysothemis and Eva Marton’s multi-layered Elektra. The playing is astounding and Abbado’s conducting a model of its kind, bringing out the shocking aspects of the score that so impressed Schoenberg and his followers without losing the tenderness that is also tucked away within the teeming anthill of notes. Sound quality is also just about as good as the newer one.
Some may respond more positively than me to this Zürich production, but if you’re looking for something for the library shelf, Kupfer and Abbado still take some beating.

Tony Haywood



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