Friday 8 April 2016

Deutsche Oper Strauss-Wochen (2) - Elektra, 7 April 2016

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Manuela Uhl
Klytämnestra – Doris Soffel
Orest – Tobias Kehrer
First Maid – Annika Schlicht
Second Maid – Rebecca Jo Loeb
Third Maid – Jana Kurucová
Fourth Maid – Fionnula McCarthy
Fifth Maid – Elbenita Kajtazi
Overseer – Stephanie Weiss
Confidante – Nicole Haslett
Trainbearer – Alexandra Hutton
Young Servant – James Kryshak
Orest’s tutor – Seth Carico
Aegisth – Clemens Bieber

Kirsten Harms (director)
Bernd Damovsky (designs)
Claudia Gotta (Spielleitung)
Silvana Schröder (choreography)

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)  

With the second of these five evenings at the Deutsche Oper, we come to Strauss’s first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal – and probably his (and their) greatest opera of all, Elektra. It may or may not be one’s ‘favourite’; such is a matter of personal taste. But the greatness of this relentless tragedy, which grabs one by the scruff of one’s neck and refuses to let one go for well-nigh a couple of hours, would be disputed by no one, even Theodor Adorno, notwithstanding his attack on its ‘entire final section,’ in which ‘banality is dominant’.

Is that how it seemed here? (The greatness, that is, rather than the alleged banality.) Yes, of course. We were in safe hands with Donald Runnicles and the excellent orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. If I had a reservation concerning Runnicles’s conducting, it was that, in the longest term, it had a tendency towards the sectional. The post-Wagnerian melos flowed wonderfully within scenes, or subdivisions thereof, and the attention paid to characterisation, harmonic and timbral, of such sections was very much welcome. However, the connections between them sometimes were sometimes a little obscured. One can have both, as Semyon Bychkov showed so triumphantly at the Proms in 2014; but then, Bychkov arguably has no peer, certainly has very few peers, at least who are alive, in this music. That concert performance was one in a million, as anyone there would attest. This was a very fine performance in the theatre, with which no one could reasonably have been disappointed. Runnicles also offered considerable variety of pacing, which never jarred, and which complemented, interacted with, the variegation of the orchestral writing so thrilling brought to life by his players.

I am now entirely converted to the cause of Evelyn Herlitzius: what an artist! One performance in particular I had heard from her in the past had been somewhat problematical, although I admired her Kundry here in Charlottenburg a couple of years ago. Here that wildness of intonation had been tamed, but without damage to the wildness of characterisation, which was such that the most exalted comparisons with any great Elektra of the past would not have been in vain. The range of colourings in the voice, opening almost contralto-like, would be worthy of an essay in itself, but just as noteworthy was the dramatic use to which they were put, certainly responding to the words, yet with equal certainty leading them, challenging the seemingly indissoluble mixture of ‘Strauss-Hofmannsthal’ to ever-greater heights, readily yet thrillingly achieved. She inhabited, gave voice to, embodied the character of Elektra, standing in a line of singing-actresses which, for any Wagnerian, necessarily extends back to Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. (And no, of course Schröder-Devrient did not sing Elektra; but imagine…!)

Doris Soffel was an imposing, vicious Klytämnestra. All singers in this role must navigate the treacherous boundaries of caricature, pantomime, even camp. Soffel did so with great success, tragedy enhanced rather than undermined. The Aegisth of Clemens Bieber I found rather rough-hewn vocally, although well enough acted. Manuela Uhl brought to life a splendidly sympathetic Chrysothemis, not without character flaws (to put it mildly!) but credible in the dramatic round. Tobias Kehrer’s Orest started stunned, even shellshocked, drained of his humanity, regained through a truly moving recognition scene with Elektra, and checked by what fate ordained he must go on to do. It was a chilling progression and regression, which reminded us that, possessed though she might be, Elektra is, in her way, as manipulative as they come, and that Orest is, by any standards, a deeply troubling character. The smaller roles were all well taken.

Alas, there is little to be said in favour of Kirsten Harms’s production. For the most part, until the end, it does not get in the way, but that is because it does not do anything much at all. Bernd Damovsky’s designs are impressive, and would doubtless be more so in a more involving production. (Most sets for Elektra tend to look pretty similar; this is no exception.) For the most part, the singers seemed to have to fend for themselves. Perhaps it was as much from this as from the pit, a new singer or two wandering on as another left the stage, that that sense of a ‘sectional’ quality had arisen; it was certainly much more pronounced scenically. As for the bizarrely choreographed final scene, in which Elektra was joined by strikingly hapless Furies (I assume that is who they were): more amdram than Sophocles, sadly. Even here, though, at least for the most part, the musical drama managed to rise above its scenic limitations.