If one had to create a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 15 minutes, it would probably look like Dieter Dorn’s 1994 production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Grey geometrical walls – check, sacrificial instruments – check, robes and veils – check. One could miss a damaged statue of Agamemnon, but it seems the budget was not rich enough for that. After all these years, it is difficult to say anything about stage direction. It is clear that production veteran Deborah Polaski – and, to some extent, Jane Henschel – shows a certain unity in her gestures. The others seem quite lost. I also know that the title role is really long and is permanently on stage and that a singer should feel thirsty at some point, but I am not entirely convinced that having a bucket of water and a cup as a stage prop is the good idea – no-one in the audience felt that this was connected to the action in any way, but rather a mere necessity one should bear with. Considering the work has completed one hundred years since its creation in Dresden (and its first performance in Berlin roughtly one month later), maybe a newstaging could have been produced.
In what regards horizontal clarity, Michael Boder offered an exemplary performance: complex harmonies were as easily perceived as if you had the score in front of you. However, no pun intended, the proceedings were rarely electrifying, although the orchestra was very responsive to Strauss’s descriptive effects. Sometimes, I had the impression that clarity was achieved at the expense of forward movement, as in Klytämnestra’s nightmare. Also, it is a pity that the brass section lacked finish in a general way.
It is something of a feat that Deborah Polaski is still regularly singing the role of Elektra at 60 (this performance was actually her birthday celebration). Provided you can put up with approximative pitch on exposed high notes, one could say it is still a most effective performance of this most difficult role. Hers is one of the less microphone-friendly voice I have ever heard – on recordings, it almost invariably sounds colourless, while live it is a voluminous stream of warm, rich sound. Above the stave, legato tends to disappear and the tone can become constricted. The extreme top notes were a matter of hit-or-miss, but her relative ease to float mezza voce rescues her from many a difficult passage. Unfortunately, the Recognition Scene, which should be her best moment, caught her bit out of steam. What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, aided by very clear diction, and dramatic commitment. Although some might find the flaws difficult to overcome, there is one undeniable asset – this is a dramatic soprano with feeling for Straussian style who often beguiles the listener with creamy stretches of expressive singing. Of how many Elektras one could say something like that? But don’t check your recordings to prove me wrong – this time you’ll really have to listen to her yourself at the theatre.
Although Anne Schwanewilms is very popular here in Germany, I believe that Chrysothemis is a no-go for her. Her voice is light for the heavy orchestration, she has problems to pierce into the auditorium in her higher register, often pecks at notes when the score requires flowing legato and, when there is no fallback position and she really has to produce some acuti, the sound is often strained. Not to mention that the buzzing sound over her voice does not help her either.
Jane Henschel’s clear yet forceful mezzo soprano counted with a neverending range of tonal colouring and her clear intervals are a strong asset for the harmonic challenging passages. Although she has clear diction, she still has to work on her American “r”. Hanno Müller-Brachmann offered focused firm tone. I do not know for how long he has been singing the role – he did not seem in his element in terms of interpretation. Reiner Goldberg’s Heldentenor is still very healthy and he never cheated with Ägysth’s angular writing. I have to say something about Monika Riedler’s Aufseherin – she offered one of the most accurate performances of this tiny but critical role that I have ever heard, live or in recordings.