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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Bartok, Bluebeard’s Castle and  Strauss, Elektra:  Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa. Coro de Ópera de Bilbao,Conductor: Juanjo Mena, Palacio Euskalduna de Bilbao, 22.9.2007.(JMI)

Bluebeard’s Castle. New Production ABAO.

Director: Michal Znaniecki.
Stage: Luigi Scoglio.
Costumes: Zosia Dojwat.
Lighting: Boguslaw Palewicz.

Elektra. Production of Royal Opera Copnehague.

Director: Peter Konwitschny
Stage & Costumes: J.Joachim Schlieker.

Lighting: Manfred Voss.

Bluebeard’s Castle:
Bluebeard:Alan Held
Judith: Ildiko Komlosi

Elektra:Janice Baird
Chrysothemis: Angela Denoke
Klytämnestra: Reinhild Runkel
Orest: Alan Held
Aeghisth: David Kuebler

The Asociación Bilbaina de Amigos de la Ópera (ABAO) is one of oldest 'Friends Associations' in Spain, maintaining one of the most prestigious opera seasons in the country. ABAO history has seen  all the great voices of the last  50 years perform in their productions, including  Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti who  sang   seven different opera titles there in the 70s. ABAO has always maintained the  quality of its vocalists, and has improved the quality of both  productions and conductors  in the past few years and has also opened up  repertoire, which until the  80s was based exclusively on Italian and French opera.

With this attractive and unusual double bill,   ABAO  opened its 56th opera season to a crowded theatre-auditorium filled with  almost 2,200 spectators.  This was one of the very rare occasions when  it has been possible to attend a performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in a double bill program, as  happened  with Salomé, offered together with Erwartung some three years ago. Next November Berlin Deutsche Oper  will do the same thing, offering Elektra with  Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra. The  Bilbao the program  needed no  more than one additional singer (Judith), since musical requirements were very similar, as were the additional production costs. Budgets were manageable given that the performance hardly lasted juts over 3 hours and a quarter, including an interval of 25  minutes.

Bluebeard's Castle

The  work of Znaniecki in the Bartok was very interesting. The action takes place in the front part of the stage, with a wall at the back, showing the seven lifting doors by means of an  outstanding use of the lights. Znaniecki conceives the  protagonists as residents in a mental hospital which given the text was an interesting idea, very well developed. The direction of actors was good, very much at the service of the music and text and in summary this  was an imaginative production from a very promising young director, as many of us  realized from his Cyrano de Bergerac in Valencia last season.

Peter Konwitschny made his debut in Bilbao with this  production of Elektra and once more he achieved his usual goal of provoking the public. He earned a sonorous and unanimous booing at his final bow, which no doubt made him very happy.  The action was moved to modern times with  Elektra dressed in jeans and with a stage showing a large room with bright walls and modern furniture. The direction was  as good as one can expect from this artist whose   problem seems to be   his eagerness for personal prominence, as has been  proved so many times before. How could we  forget his Don  Carlos in Vienna and Barcelona or his Holländer in Munich?


His personal (and problematic) contributions to this production were threefold. First, in  the long initial scene (before the orchestra starts)  he presents  Agamenón to us  with three small children in a bathtub, until he is assassinated in the presence of them all by Klytämnestra and Aegisth.  The idea is not bad at all, but it lasted for more than ten minutes and the public started to show their impatience. Somebody should have said to Konwitschny that the idea was intrinsically good, and if kept short, twice as good.

In second place, Konwitschny makes a lesbian and incestuous show in the scene of Elektra begging to her sister to help her to kill their mother. Finally, the last ten minutes of the opera consist of a fireworks celebration with machine guns shooting noisily (music suffers) at everything that already on stage  in a feast of wild violence, as if this opera did not have enough already. But the most serious problem from my point of view was the murder scene with policemen, dressed in the uniforms of Basque and city police, and one or two nuns. Evidently, in Stuttgart and Copenhagen these police don't exist, which meant that Konwitschny had served up some   real provocation “ad hoc”, to a country suffering of extreme violence for the last 40 years with many victims among the police force itself. If we  add the back projection of phrases such as “Viva el odio” or  “Cheer the hate” it was only to be expected that the public reacted with dislike and anger. Modernity is one thing but having the public upset as they leave the theatre is something else entirely.

Juanjo Mena however is one of the most promising conductors in the Spanish musical panorama at the moment and I know that he accepted the invitation to conduct this double bill as a real personal challenge. He excelled in the Bartok, and while  more irregular in the Strauss, his reading was still a good one. His orchestra lacked something in Elektra, particularly in the strings.

In vocal terms, this was  a feast of female singing. Janice Baird showed once again that she is a magnificent actress-singer. She made a very convincing Elektra, full of power and  Angela Denoke was a perfect Chrysothemis right through the opera - a great singer and an tremendous  actress. No problems either  with the Klytämnestra of Reinhild  Runkel. She was powerful, most suitable for  the part and an outstanding interpreter. The Hungarian, Ildiko Komlosi was a Judith difficult to match. Vocally the role presents her with no  difficulties allowing her to  show a voice of high quality and good and convincing interpretation.

Alan Held was both Bluebeard and Orest and was outstanding, particularly in the Bartok. David Kuebler was a very suitable Aegisth.

The public in Bilbao has always been rather cool, but polite. After this Elektra things will probably never be the same again, at least with directors. That is not necessarily bad.

Jose M. Irurzun

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Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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