15 Oct 2007
STRAUSS : Elektra
Whatever you do, don't give this DVD as a gift to people you don't want to alienate.
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There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
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Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
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Whatever you do, don't give this DVD as a gift to people you don't want to alienate.
This production focusses on the opera as the drama of a horribly dysfunctional family. Murderous they may be, but they're still recognisably human, not stereotypes. Elektra isn't just a raving madwoman but someone with whom we can readily identify. Dressed in a hoodie and fingerless gloves, she's the punky rebel we've all encountered. That probably says something disturbing about the society in which we live, but it's all the more reason for listening to this interpretation.
Gőtz Freidrich's visualisation of the Bőhm production was so powerful that it's hard to shake images of Rysenek and Varney, haunted and distraught, emerging from a murky background. Perhaps this new production is a conscious effect to break away, for the Zűrich production is lit so harshly that it hurts, achieving an oppressive effect by opposite means. The very ground beneath the singers undulates, underlining the shaky foundations of Klytemnestra's power. Holes in the floor provide burrows in which Elektra can hide, like a feral beast. Like abused children, she's had no support, and hardship has taken its toll.
This production places some emphasis on social commentary. Doors open and close along barren corridors, as if the palace were a hotel. I doubt that Kušej knowingly made the connection, but Klytemnestra and Aegisthus are indeed the type who think morals apply “only to little people”. The contemporary focus also brings out interesting secondary themes. Elektra and Chrysothemis represent completely different ways of coping with the family trauma, and by extension, illustrate the choices open to women in society. This is in the libretto and in the music, so it's not inappropriate and is not, in any case, overdone.
More developed, though, is the production's fascination with sexual ambiguity. The story wouldn't have happened in the first place if were it not for Aegisthus and Klytemnesrra having an illicit relationship, so there's clearly a sexual undercurrent. Yet Elektra's identification with her father and brother goes deeper than anger at her father's death. The scene in which she buries the apparition of a little blond girl ties in psychologically with her revulsion at being touched by Orestes and the frisson with which she imagines her sister's marriage. Her kind of madness would have fascinated Freud, and the wordly circles in which Strauss moved. But what do we make of the naked young men who flit across the stage in suspender belts and lipstick ? Or the butch mistress who manages the maidservants ? Or Aegisthus with so much rouge ? Definitely these things contribute to the idea of a court where aberration rules, but the scene in which half the cast turns up in feather tutus is a bit beyond me. It's certainly spectacular, though, and a visual release after all that repression .
Eva Johanssen convinces as this conflicted Elektra because she's a good actress, the subtlety of her portrayal captured better on film through close-ups and quick cuts than would come over in stage performance. Vocally, her range is more restricted, but this is not a role that requires prettiness. Just as Elektra had to hold out alone for years, awaiting vengeance, Johanssen's part heroically supports the whole opera. She creates the character even when she's not actually singing. Lipovšek's Klytemnestra is surprisingly sympathetic. She uses the natural roundness in her voice to balance the harshness inherent in the role. Klytemnestra has bad dreams, so she does have a conscience, not at that far from the surface. In comparison, Deiner, Muff and Schasching have relatively straight forward parts. The dialogues, such as between the sisters, and later when Elektra faces off Aegisthus, come over clearly. A pleasant surprise was Sen Gou. It's probably back handed compliment to single out one of the maids in a chorus, but her role is more important than it might seem, for she's the maid who defends Elektra when all the others condemn her. This maid, like Elektra herself, is “allein” and suffers for being an individual. Sen Gou's personality and singing definitely stood out. I also liked the orchestral playing, for Dohnanyi's lucid style did not submerge the spartan angularities in the music. Even when he's evoking the wild abandon of the final dance, his clear vision respects the modernity in Strauss's orchestration. This new production certainly won't supplant the Bőhm on DVD, but it's an approach which enhances the opera as a human drama.