Although some may dislike Georg Solti’s overkilling conducting in his studio recording of R. Strauss’s Elektra, every Straussian cherishes Birgit Nilsson’s superpowerful performance in the title role, in which she sounds unfazed by the role’s impossible demands. Live in the theater, however, the experience is usually quite different: one is often more concerned with the singer’s survival rather than with Musikdrama. I am glad to report that this is not the case with Evelyn Herlitzius. I know this German soprano awakens controversy whenever it appears in a cast list: it is a hoch dramatisch voice, but prone to squalliness and not entirely adept in flowing legato and shading. However, few other singers these days (the name of Irene Théorin comes to my mind when I have to think of someone else) are able to supply the excitement of a truly big voice over a very loud orchestra without effort as she does. After some very negative reviews of her Ortrud in Bayreuth, I am glad to see that this Elektra means a step ahead in her career.
First of all, although tone-colouring and shading is not Herlitzius’s main asset, in a role in which most singers are just trying to cope with, she has enough leeway to make something out of it. And in comparison, she can’t help sounding more interesting than most. Her clear diction, her expert understanding of the text and the instinct for the right inflection makes her particularly convincing in the most difficult declamatory passages. One can really hear in her voice when she is being ironic, vulnerable or just rightaway aggressive. It is even more praiseworthy that she has been working hard on her technique – I found her more willing to keep a melodic line when necessary, more keen on shading her tone or trying softer sounds than ever. She still works really hard for that – and one can hear it – but she is really a trouper here: she never refused to give each particular moment its right “atmosphere”. In the Recognition Scene, for example, although the tone could seem a bit grey, she did scale down, never attacked any note too strongly and now and then achieved something of a mezza voce. Was it perfect? Probably not – but it was effective. And other than Nilsson, who could be called “perfect” in this role? To make things better, her stage presence was magnetic, even more telling for her looking (and also sounding) young in a role usually made to sound more mature in dramatic sopranos’ voices and bulk. And, last but not last, Herlitzius knows how to play her trump card – when she unleashed her stentorian acuti, the physical “presence” of these notes in the auditorium was an exciting experience in itself.
Emma Vetter’s Chrysothemis too is an improvement from what I’ve heard from her in Stockholm. She still needs to work on her projection in her middle and low register, but she seems less coy and a bit more able to keep intensity in her phrasing. I wonder if the role is proper to her temper at all, but she is definitely finding her way in this jugendlich dramatisch role. Although Renate Behle had been often called a pushed-up mezzo while she sang Wagnerian soprano roles, I wonder how much of a mezzo she actually is. For a veteran, her voice is still finely focused and even young sounding in its brightness. She only betrays her maturity in failing to support her sustained high g’s. While she is able to keep focus down to the lower end of her range, she does not have by nature lots of resonance there, what is always frustrating when the role is Klytämnestra. It is most curious that, even if one could hear the souffleur cueing her, her performance was spontaneous yet subtly shaded. It just did not match Herlitzius’s larger-scaled contribution. Both men were properly cast – Reiner Goldberg, as always, is a efficient, firm-toned Ägysth and, although Hanno Müller-Brachmann hams a lot as Orest, his uniquely dark and bright bass-baritone is taylor-made for the role.
Conductor Johannes Debus has a very clear notion of what a Straussian orchestral sound is – the Staatskapelle Berlin produced gleaming, rich sounds that never overwhelmed singers on stage. The way woodwind had pride of place and blended with brass in Straussian kaleidoscopic orchestration deserves mention too. However, the beautifully transparent sonic frame failed to produce a coherent structural image. Although one could hear everything, the individual elements of Richard Strauss’s complex score did not seem to have a lot of… individuality, as if one still need to press the “sharpness” button on a TV set.
As for Dieter Dorn’s old, old, old staging, there is nothing else to be said. Herlitzius seemed to find a new life in it and interacted very precisely with Renate Behle in their scene, while Emma Vetter did not seem really comfortable with playing intensity – as mentioned-above, Müller-Brachmann desperately needs the director here. And, if I may suggest something as disrespectful as that, if the Staatsoper really wants to use this production again, do we really have to live with the Life-of-Brian costumes? Especially when the men had modern shoes on their feet?!