Saturday 14 November 2015

Elektra, Vienna State Opera, 13 November 2015

Images: Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Vienna State Opera

Elektra – Nina Stemme
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Klytämnestra – Anna Larsson
Orest – Matthias Goerne
Aegisth – Herbert Lippert
First Maid – Monika Bohinec
Second Maid – Ilsyear Khayrullova
Third Maid – Ulrike Helzel
Fourth Maid – Caroline Wenborne
Fifth Maid – Ildikó Raimondi
Overseer – Donna Ellen
Young Servant – Thomas Ebenstein
Old Servant – Hans Peter Kammerer
Orest’s tutor – Il Hong
Confidante – Simina Ivan
Trainbearer – Aura Twarowska

Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director)
Rolf Glittenberg (set designs)
Marianne Glittenberg (costumes)
Andreas Grüter (lighting)

Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Peter Schneider (conductor)

It almost seems wrong to be thinking and writing about a visit to the opera in the wake of the Paris attacks last night. Yet, beyond the justified claim that we should not be deterred from going about our business – there are, I think, some exceptions, but let us leave them on one side for now – we should also remember that art speaks of the human condition. It enables us to deal with what goes on around us: not, I hope, as mere escape, but as an exploration of some of the most fundamental issues with which we grapple. Strauss’s æstheticism continues to challenge us – and so it should. It will do so in different ways at different times, and that is all to the good.


Whilst Elektra is far too important a work to be simply, or even mostly, ‘about’ one particular character or artist, Nina Stemme was clearly a principal attraction in a very strong cast. She might not be how we all ‘imagine’ Elektra, but such a situation can often present a justified challenge to our preconceptions. Stemme proved tireless, constantly musical and, just as important, constantly communicative with Hofmannsthal’s words, and a fine actress. It was interesting to note, and I do not think this was simply a matter of acclimatisation on my part, that she looked more ‘like’ the Stemme we know from other performances as the evening went on. To start with, Marianne Glittenberg’s costume cunningly doing its work here, I am not sure that I should have recognised her with my eyes alone. A Lieder-like approach to text as music and words, though, marked out her artistry. And the accuracy, volume, and tonal quality of her climaxes – there are many! – would have given Birgit Nilsson a run for her money, although the sound is of course quite different. Indeed, Stemme struck an excellent balance between strength of character and necessary – for survival – ability to adapt, wheedling herself, if only temporarily, back into the affections of her mother and detested stepfather.


With the exception of a weakly-sung Aegisth, a part often given to former Siegfrieds – surely Vienna could have done better than this! – the cast was excellent. All of the ‘smaller’ roles were very well taken, attesting to the casting in depth that a great company can offer. For me, Thomas Ebenstein’s lyric tenor, as agile as the singer on stage, and the warm humanity of Ildikó Raimondi’s Fifth Maid – what a gift of a role! – stood out, but this is definitely a case of almost all deserving prizes.


Gun-Brit Barkmin grasped what I assume to have been Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s concept – and of course, the work’s concept, at least implicitly – of Chrysothemis as a young woman repressing, somewhat kinkily, her adulthood, Marianne Glittenberg’s over-sized, little-girl costume again making the point strongly in visual terms. Barkmin grasped it and ran with it, helpless, but perhaps – we could never quite tell – knowingly so, again as a survival mechanism in impossible times, domestically and politically, whilst maintaining as impressive control over Strauss’s musical lines as she had Berg’s in Wozzeck last month. Barkmin was impressive in Semyon Bychkov’s magnificent Proms performance of Elektra in 2014; here she was more so still and, crucially, offering a different reading according to context.


Anna Larsson’s portrayal of Klyämnestra was also in its way a revelation. I have grown so accustomed to thinking of this wonderful contralto voice ‘simply’ as the earth-voice of sincerity and truth in the Ring and in Mahler, that it came as quite a jolt to hear and indeed to see her in so different a role. Again, visually I should not have recognised her. I am not sure I have heard a true contralto sing the part before; it is, of course, rare nowadays to hear a true contralto at all. Yet, not only was the musical result beautiful, although not too beautiful, Larsson’s stage presence matched her vocal artistry, again in a way that confounded narrow expectations based solely upon narrow, personal experience.


Matthias Goerne proved a chilling, psychopathic Orest. When I had heard him previously, his approach had been, for want of a better word, more ‘intellectual’. Here, again apparently grasping the needs of the moment, this undoubtedly intelligent artist sounded splendidly instinctive. (It is not that the two are polar opposites, or in any sense exclusive, but they are often treated as if they are such.) He sounded and looked – the costume initially concealed him more than Elektra’s had her – like a voice from beyond: almost a male Erda, perhaps a Charon or a Pluto. We could not but doubt that he brought death, nor that he was deeply damaged by experience. The culmination of the Recognition Scene, in which brother and sister relied as much upon their sense of touch as their sense of sight – perhaps they have seen far too much truly to be able to see any more – proved both moving and provocative in the expectation of something incestuous, only to be thwarted, not the least intelligent of Laufenberg’s double moves.

Peter Schneider seemed almost a different conductor from when I had heard him conduct the work, disappointingly, in Dresden almost a year ago. Everything was much sharper, and the Vienna orchestra was in far better shape than its Straussian rival. (Perhaps, last December, that was something to do with Christian Thielemann having had the pick of the bunch the previous evening, but such variation remains difficult to account for entirely.) Strauss’s score danced with exuberance and with sickly longing; it lingered only too long early in what seemed almost an interminable Recognition Scene, a rare lapse. The phantasmagorical array of colours, harmonic as well as instrumental, which the composer conjures up was well served by the Vienna orchestra. If it were not quite at the level of inspiration of Daniele Gatti with these players in Salzburg in 2010, it was still a very fine orchestral performance, that golden Vienna string tone unmistakeable. There were, moreover, a good few passages which seemed, tantalisingly, to reach out towards Erwartung.

Laufenberg’s production is intelligent throughout and, for the work, intriguingly different, although not for the sake of ‘difference’. I say ‘for the work’, since most Elektra sets seem to end up looking more or less the same. There is an element of the familiarly granitic and fascistic in Rolf Glittenberg’s designs, but they do not overwhelm as often they do. (Not that I am arguing such designs should not; it is not, however, the only way.) Accentuating the domesticity, as it were, seems very much in line with the Strauss-Hofmannsthal Freudian approach to the myth. And death hangs over the piece with a visual stench that would pack quite a punch, could I bring myself to mix metaphors quite so flagrantly. (If I am shamelessly having my cake and eating it in the preceding sentence, so, in many respects does the work itself.)

A lift connects the palace proper to the courtyard, although we do not necessarily notice it to begin with, the action very much taking charge of itself. (I am not sure that I had previously noticed quite so strong a kinship between the opening scene and its sister in Maeterlinck’s, though not Debussy’s, Pelléas.) It is in that that Klytämnestra descends (and Aegisth never manages to ascend). Behind the glass, she already seems encased: almost a taxidermist’s objet d’art. Her entrance – with that music, she simply has to make an entrance – thus proved, if one can have such a thing, a slightly understated coup de théâtre. If I mention her having a wheelchair and Elektra a suitcase, cries of ‘cliché’ will doubtless issue forth – and often, I should sympathise. But Elektra prevaricating over packing her bags is hardly an inappropriate idea here and, more importantly, the specific use of the wheelchair offers an interesting and indeed surprising commentary not only upon Klytämnestra, but also on her relationship with her daughter, which after all lies at the heart of the drama. The queen does not need it at all, or at least she sometimes realises that she does not. She is in many respects keeping up appearances, although for whom? Her retinue? Which way might they turn, if the going gets tough? Their indecision later on subtly underlines the point. Is there an ‘outside’ the palace and its environs? Is the queen’s act for them? We are not sure, and that seems to me quite an interesting reading of Strauss and Hofmannsthal on Sophocles: extending their seeming lack of interest in the political and turning it in – or should that be ‘out’? – upon itself. Her confidant and trainbearer inject her with something. Who is controlling whom? And yet, when they are out of the way, when finally she can settle herself to speak with her daughter as something approaching – at least in House of Atreus terms – her mother, Klytämnestra can walk freely: discuss, perhaps even take some agency for the self-interpretation of, her dreams. Elektra at one point takes her place in the wheelchair. Is that not in a sense right, given all she has suffered? And yet, she cannot of course remain there, or all would fail.

I have dwelled upon that particular scene, since it seemed to me unusually central to interpretation of the work and production on this evening. Its presentation is also typical of Laufenberg’s impressively text-based approach to the work. He is not necessarily a director to set off music against words – often a fruitful approach with Strauss – but not everyone can offer the layered approach, at least all the time, of a Stefan Herheim. (This is yet another work in which I should love to see what he might accomplish.) Laufenberg’s, however, is a thoughtful, faithful, yet far from subservient reading, to which I should readily return. The treatment of Elektra’s Dance is a case in point, and here there was perhaps a deeper engagement with the music too. I still think that, as I wrote when discussing that Proms performance, to speak, as Adorno did, of the discontinuity ‘between the wildness of most of Strauss’s music in Elektra and its blissfully triadic conclusion’ is wilful. However, there is an element of (false?) relapse here; the emergence of strikingly beautiful, untarnished, unreal (?) young waltzers, offering the banal hope of a utopian future amidst Mycenaean devastation, knocked sidewise by the unexpected turn of the music and carrying Elektra off with them, makes a point I thought not un-Adornian, although perhaps more fruitful. What, then, are we to make of the shell-shocked Chrysothemis, who remains?