tue 22/09/2020

Elektra, Salzburg Festival, Arte review - distancing, but not in the physical sense | reviews, news & interviews

Elektra, Salzburg Festival, Arte review - distancing, but not in the physical sense

Elektra, Salzburg Festival, Arte review - distancing, but not in the physical sense

Cold, analytical Strauss from Franz Welser-Möst and an odd array of performing styles

Aušrinė Stundytė as ElektraAll images by Bernd Uhlig

So much for the assertion that nowhere in the world would be staging the big Strauss and Wagner operas for the indefinite future. With a combination of lavish funding and good pandemic management on Austria's part, it’s been possible in Salzburg.

So much for the assertion that nowhere in the world would be staging the big Strauss and Wagner operas for the indefinite future. With a combination of lavish funding and good pandemic management on Austria's part, it’s been possible in Salzburg. Ironic, then, that though no holds are barred in terms of how close everyone on stage and in the pit can be, with any amount of feeling and touching permitted short (I’m guessing) of osculation, this Elektra feels, for the most part, distanced not socially (or, in the case of this work, anti-socially) but in psychological terms.

Some of that could be predicted with Franz Welser-Möst at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic. He’s not a man of temperament, and while Strauss’s orchestral colours all emerge hand in glove with sensible articulation – even down to the heckelphone or bass oboe, rarely heard in the textures – the skin and viscera have been removed; only the bones remain. I had higher hopes for the work of often revelatory director Krzysztof Warlikowski; his Phaedra(s) with Isabelle Huppert was an unforgettable vision, and what he did with Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera is burned on the memory. The most gripping slice of the drama actually comes in spoken text at the beginning – Clytemnestra’s speech after the murder of her husband in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (I think; no credit is given in the film. The text of the play which Strauss adapted, is of course by great Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, "freely after Sophocles"; his Everyman is performed annually at Salzburg). Tanya Ariane Baumgartner as Clytemnestra in Salzburg ElektraThrillingly declaimed by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (pictured above), the speech promises us a strong Clytemnestra in the opera proper which, unfortunately, we don’t get. Baumgartner plays the guilty mother of, let’s say, 20 years later as something out of a hammy Hollywood movie of the 1950s, distracting big hair and all; the close-ups don’t do her any favours. There’s little chance of any shafts of sympathy indicated in the score; in the most unsettling image, a maid driven off naked in the first scene has been cut up for sacrificial ritual. The woman’s an unreal monster, though for once she's laden with the charms and talismans she sings about, removed – like various pairs of shoes in the course of the action – when there's the possibility of getting closer to a family member.

The style is at odds with Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė’s utterly convincing portrayal of an Elektra as on the brink of madness, all flashing eyes and inconsolable brooding, one who despite a few sassy tango steps in her first monologue clearly won’t be able to execute her dance of triumph after her brother’s murder of mother and lover. Stundytė, hitting all the top notes spot-on, can certainly sing the part, and the text is perfectly projected, though her husky sound takes some getting used to. Elektra-Chrysothemis scene in Salzbyrg ElektraIt’s perfectly offset by the soaring lyric soprano of Asmik Grigoryan (pictured above on the right with Stundytė). Her Chrysothemis is the sensible sister, though not the usual compromiser: tough, sassy and much more practical when it comes to the aftermath of the murder (what’s going on in the glass-box house distracts a bit from Elektra’s final monologue). There’s a plausible suggestion that Aegisth (Michael Lorenz) has been abusing his step-daughters. Even so, that scene of Elektra’s false greeting doesn’t work so well, and very often there are distractions from the one-to-ones; not so in the great Recognition Scene, where Derek Welton is utterly plausible as an unusually sympathetic, terrified and emotional Orest. Warlikowski’s handling of how brother and sister come so close to holding each other, but just can’t do it, is humane and convincing.

The visuals are striking, as one expects from any Warlikowski production. The walls of the Felsenreitschule – think Von Trapps at the pre-escape singing festival in The Sound of Music if you haven’t seen it in stony reality – are sometimes suggested, but Małgorzata Szczęśniak‘s set makes its own impact. Water that should, but can’t, purify the crimes is present, ready to pour from a row of showerheads and in the prominent shape of a stepped pool through which the ghost of Agamemnon solemnly wades during Elektra’s monologue.Final scene of Salzburg ElektraFelice Ross‘s lighting is perfectly attuned to the mood-changes of the score. And Kamil Polak's video work comes into its own at the end, a giddying substitute for the heroine’s dance of death; bluebottles over the streaks of blood multiply into swarms of black insects (pictured above), ready to pursue Orest as he flees the house. So many great ideas here, but it doesn’t all add up to an electrifying whole; Patrice Chéreau's vision in Aix, restaged at the New York Met three years after his death, still blazes the stronger. Still, it happened in summer 2020, and that’s the miracle.

Comments

Excellent review David,but Orest is Derek Welton not Welby

Thanks for letting me know - duly corrected.

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