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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra (1906)
Eva Johansson (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 von Dohnanyi
Martin Kušej (Stage Director)
rec. Zürich, 30 November, 4 December 2005. DDD
All regions NTSC

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”.
This 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.
Eva 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 for.
Elektra 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.
In 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.
Johansson’s 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”.
The 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.
Marjana Lipovšek’s 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.
Anne Ozorio

see also review by Tony Haywood




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