Opera Reviews
19 September 2020
Untitled Document

Against all the odds Salzburg comes up trumps with its new Elektra



by Moore Parker
Strauss, R: Elektra
Salzburg Festival
10 August 2020
Asmik Grigorian (Chrysothemis), Ausrine Stundyte (Elektra))

Against all the odds, the centenary Salzburg Festival went ahead - in a scaled-down version and with two carefully chosen opera productions tailored to meet the COVID-19 crisis and accommodate both stage and auditorium options. 

In June, the Vienna State Opera showed that live events were possible with an audience limit of a mere one hundred,. With Austrian regulations now capping at the 1000 audience mark, the Salzburg team devised chess-board seating arrangements with social distancing, allowing slightly over fifty per cent seating capacity for the Felsenreitschule’s new Elektra - complete with personalised tickets and obligatory masks, except during the actual performance.

Strauss’ masterpiece was chosen here a decade ago to mark the 90th anniversary of the festival - as a work which has a vital historic association with the festival (and again now as an ideal choice under the current circumstances). Richard Strauss first saw Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play, Elektra, in a production by Max Reinhardt (who in turn was the essential driving force behind the Salzburg Festival)  and of course, subsequently Elektra would become the first collaboration between author and composer.

The current production is a remarkable feat considering the current situation - all the more remarkable as an event ranking amongst Salzburg’s finest, and in no respect technically or artistically curtailed or compromised.

Clever use of the broad Felsenreitschule stage sees a “divide” which features a “bassin” and a row of open showers to one side (echoing the demise of Agamemnon, and in which the water is symbolically used by the various protagonists - including the murdered King himself as Elektra addresses him in her opening monologue). This is balanced by an imposing rectangular enclosure (Klytämnestra’s realm) with translucent walls which conceal or expose action as required - all amplified by camera projection (video, Kamil Polak) of live elements upon the vast rear backdrop wall of the venue. The divide resolves - with the enclosure sliding to cover the water as plans to eliminate Klytämnestra and Ägisth become reality. Three life-sized puppets (presumably the three siblings) are engaged as observers on occasion - arguably an unnecessary addition (as are the bouquet-bearing servants to welcome Orest’s arrival) to an otherwise slick reading. The lighting (Felice Ross) makes effective use of the elements, with water rippling in reflection over stone and steel and with dramatic mood changes highlighting the action impressively.

In glowing heat and to the sound of crickets chirping, the evening begins with Klytämnestra recounting the preamble to the opera’s plot - during which Elektra’s emotional reactions can been seen in projection - thus not only creating a different framework within which the production functions, but also a broader and more sympathetic perspective of Klytämnestra and her lot.   

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski has captivatingly condensed these classical figures into very human, very credible individuals - each strikingly defined and showing rare dramatic interaction. Here is a scale remote from interpreters such as Nilsson, Jones, Rysanek, et al, but one more intimate and indeed, as effective - if within a totally different sphere.

All three female leads are attractive - if not glamorous - women, in particular the bejewelled and stiffly-coiffed Klytämnestra, but equally Chrysothemis in her slinky pink two-piece outfit which consciously reveals an enviable six-pack, and with Elektra boasting a white and red frock and jacket. Stilettos and cigarettes are en vogue. The staging and costumes are by Małgorzata Szczęśniak,

In the title role, Ausrine Stundyte excels in winning empathy for the character - not least through her skilled guidance of a warm and malleable soprano, cleverly graded with nuance and capable of finely-spun tone and effective use of vocal colour. She shows good sustaining power throughout the gruelling evening too, with only Elektra’s huge climaxes briefly leaving one feeling a touch short-changed.

Salzburg’s current darling soprano, Asmik Grigorian, maintained the searing intensity she brought here as Wozzeck’s Marie and as Salome - but Chrysothemis is plagued with other vocal demands, and intense and enjoyable as this reading was, the score’s most dramatic and high-lying lines can audibly be heard taking their toll in vocal capital. 

With a stable of impressive roles to her credit, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner created a committed and elegant Klytämnestra, possibly somewhat disadvantaged by the modern setting, and with a certain lack of tonal clarity and projection of a fine instrument that should unquestionably suffice for both role and venue. As such, a touch disappointing on this occasion.

Orest is unusually depicted here - rather bumbling - indeed, almost a simpleton (costumed accordingly in Fair Isle jumper and ill-fitting pants) and most subtly played by Derek Welton. The murders are naturally not visible, but thereafter Orest is seen casting white sheets over the corpses, to ultimately lose his senses completely and flee the scene in despair. Welton takes the prize for the most pregnant diction of the evening, and together with a substantial and effortless bass-baritone, can claim an auspicious debut.

Michael Laurenz was a spritely-suited and vocally solid Ägisth, while Jens Larsen played a most characterful Old Servant.

A strong line-up in supports augmented the leads, with the entire cast tautly-coached by their director while testifying pristine attention to detail, and a flow in affinity with Strauss’ score.  

Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra guaranteed for a compact evening laced with finesse and minute detail. In the absence of a Souffleur or Souffleuse the conductor’s cues were vital and unfailingly assertive in a reading well-scaled to the cast and ideally balanced.

As the finale envelops, Orest’s first deed is registered aurally with a gruelling scream and visually with the spattering of blood across a flash whitened backdrop covering the entire rear wall. Within seconds, house flies appear to relish their meal. Rather like the crows in Hitchcock’s The Birds, these common insects here flourish by the second, and with Ägisth’s demise ultimately form a dense black circle which rotates in a frenzy to depict and mirror Elektra’s final dance. The effect is bold - but in its timing and intensity, rather show-stealing in moments which arguably belong more to the two female siblings as the drama climaxes.

This Elektra is an event to remember - and as theatres remain closed across the planet, an achievement deserving high respect.

Parallel to this year’s Festival, the Salzburg Museum has put together Großes Welttheater - an extensive exhibition spanning the century of the Festival’s artistic achievements with displays which include written and photographic material, including interesting correspondence, contracts and so on, as well as costumes, props and furniture from productions down the years - and with a natural focus on Max Reinhardt and productions of von Hofmannsthal’s play Jedermann, which opened the original festival on August 22, 1920 - and which has remained cardinal to the event ever since. The exhibition remains open through October 31, 2021.

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © SF / Bernd Uhlig
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