Saturday, 15 December 2007

Elektra, Deutsche Oper, 14 December 2007

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Klytämnestra – Jane Henschel
Elektra – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Chrysothemis – Claudia Iten
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
Orest – Alfred Walker
Der Pfleger des Orest – Tomislav Lucic
Die Vertraute – Sarah Ferede
Die Schleppträgerin – Anna Fleischer
Ein junger Diener – Paul Kaufmann
Ein alter Diener – Jörn Schümann
Die Aufseherin – Stephanie Weiss
Erste Magd – Nicole Piccolomini
Zweite Magd – Julia Benzinger
Dritte Magd – Ulrike Helzel
Vierte Magd – Andion Fernandez
Fünfte Magd – Jacquelyn Wagner

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Dancers from the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Leopold Hager (conductor)

Kirsten Harms (director)
Bernd Damovsky (stage design and costumes)

For earlier performances, the Deutsche Oper had hit upon the fascinating idea of preceding Elektra with Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra, known to Strauss and premiered four years earlier in 1905 under Toscanini. Cassandra deals with a preceding section of the myth of the accursed house of Atreus, focusing upon Klytemnestra’s murderous revenge upon Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, as foretold by the ever-unheeded prophetess Cassandra. Sadly, the performance I could attend was solely of Elektra, yet I tried nevertheless to bear in mind the mythological context, with the result that the characters’ hysterical derangement seemed slightly less arbitrary than otherwise might have been the case. The curse of Pelops upon his sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of Chrysippos, their half-brother, reaches down to yet another generation.

Bernd Damovsky’s set, simple but not abstract, focused attention upon the bestial existence Elektra has led since the murder of Agamemnon. Banished from what passes for human society in the palace of Mycenae, she crawls around upon the ground, a waste land of broken images, awaiting vengeance from her brother, Orest. Others looked in upon her, whether from above or on her level, whether to mock or to fear, but this was definitely her space. The jeering maids, all very well sung, surrounded and yet could not break her, likewise the grotesque Klytämnestra. For Kirsten Harms’s excellent Personenregie focused our attention ever more keenly upon the extraordinary dynamics of this family and its supporting cast. The situation had become so desperate, as much for Klytämnestra and Aegisth as anyone else, that something had to happen. And of course it did.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet summoned up a tremendous performance in the title-role, a role as cruelly relentless as the opera itself. The very occasional moment of tiredness could easily be forgiven in the context of a portrayal encompassing such violent and yet never quite un-musical swings. It was certainly not all presented at full-throttle: despite the ominous presence of Strauss’s huge orchestra, there was considerable subtlety of vocal shading to this Elektra. Dancers from the opera’s ballet acted out her dance for her, albeit with her interaction, suggesting a projection of her dreams and nightmares even unto death.

Leopold Hager’s excellent conducting assisted greatly in permitting Charbonnet to accomplish this. A conductor who never quite seems to have gained the regard his due, and perhaps best known for his Mozart, Hager was quite at home with the exigencies of the score. Whilst in the final reckoning this reading may have lacked the razor-sharp attention to line and to colouristic extravagance of a Christoph von Dohnányi, I have rarely heard the crucial dance element to so much of the music brought out so tellingly, especially in the run up to Elektra’s final, wild dance itself. We are not nearly so far from Der Rosenkavalier as might be imagined. In this, of course, Hager was dependent upon the strength of his orchestra, whose strings and brass in particular impressed. The brass contribution to the coming of Orest was crucial not only in identifying the mysterious stranger, but also in underlying the Wagnerian sound of Fate, without which the drama would seem merely sensational.

Jane Henschel is not the sort of artist to give so searingly nasty a reading of Klytämnestra as, say, Felicity Palmer (whom I have seen in London and Amsterdam), but the grotesquerie of this mother on her very last legs provided compensation. This never tipped into caricature, but her hysterical laughter duly horrified, upon momentarily regaining the upper hand, having taunted her daughter with news of Orest’s death. It focused more sharply what her words and vocal line had already told us, proceeding from her dreams rather than seeming a gratuitous addition to an already over-heated atmosphere. Burkhard Ulrich’s Aegisth was suitably sinister, oozing malevolent decay, yet once again without edging into caricature, as so often happens in this small but crucial part. Alfred Walker presented a fine Orest, absolutely secure in the role that Fate has allotted him, beautiful and implacably strong of tone, and truly moving during the revelation of his identity to Elektra. The orchestra’s role in the Recognition Scene – essentially, following Wagner, as Chorus to the protagonists – assisted them greatly, as did Hager’s astute musical direction. So much that could not be said in words followed the moment of recognition. Also deeply moving was Claudia Iten’s heartfelt Chrysothemis, unconditional in her love for her afflicted sister, yet appropriately horrified by Elektra’s plans.

Viewed as a whole, the performance took a little while to scale the heights, or perhaps to plumb the depths, although it was never less than very good. If I found myself desperately wishing for Orest to arrive, even if only to introduce a male voice into the world of sometimes shrill female hysteria, then that is doubtless as it should be. From the moment of Orest’s arrival, everything appeared to move up a gear; the working out of Fate was made absolutely clear. The last half hour or so was almost unbearably powerful. In this strange tragedy without catharsis, one cannot but feel browbeaten by the end, but it would be unbearable in the wrong sense, were this to have resulted from a bad or mediocre performance. There was no question of that here, in what must be accounted a considerable triumph for Berlin’s Deutsche Oper.

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