My last visit to São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal had not been very happy and it took me a while to decide to buy a ticket to their new staging of R. Strauss’s Elektra. The cast list finally take my chance once more. I saw Catherine Foster´s Elektra (in concert, full edition) in Berlin only last year and thought it would be interesting to see her in a staged performance. Luck favors the bold – the theatrical aspect of Ms. Foster’s Elektra proved to be a valuable addition to her musical performance. To say the truth, the concert in Berlin showed her in really, really better voice than yesterday, when her soprano sounded on the unfocused side and many high notes were sung below true pitch. But that was her singing – her acting was entirely focused and she never missed one dramatic point. Even not in her best voice, the tone coloring was apt, the word-pointing was clear (the one improvement from Berlin) and everything she sang was a consequence of her gestures and facial expressions. I have the impression that the complex sceneries might have had something to do with that, for Emily Magee (Chrystothemis) found it hard to pierce through the orchestra. Hers is usually a sizeable soprano, but this evening she had to employ a little bit more pressure than usual. It took her a while to find an ideal compromise. Under these circumstances, subtlety was out of the question. She too was scenically convincing and well contrasted to Elektra. Although her mezzo was two sizes smaller than the part and the low notes required some gear change, Natascha Petrinsky took pride of place in what regards intonation and, for a change, it is nice to hear someone who is not fighting with high notes in this part. It is difficult to assess how successful her acting was – Klytämnestra is here portrayed as some sort of Cruella de Vil, a concept wholeheartedly embrassed by the Austrian mezzo. Is she to blame for a directorial choice? Jürgen Sacher was an efficient Ägysth, fazed by the acoustics as well. Albert Dohmen, even if a bit rusty (and visually old for the role), had the right gravitas for the part – and was the only person on stage whose voice truly blossomed in the auditorium. Maybe I was spoiled by the glamorous casting for minor roles in the Chéreau production , but the opening scene would have benefited from more solid voices and better diction.
The house orchestra is everything but a world class orchestra. Its strings lack tone, to start with. Then brass instruments had their bumpy moments, but, compared to what I heard in their Lohengrin, this evening was far more satisfying. Maybe because conductor Eduardo Strausser has “Strauss” in his name, he could find the right balance between minimally supplying this complex score’s demands and the practicality of the means available. As it was, tempi could be a little bit ponderous, but his concern with structural clarity and phrasing kept the proceedings “legible” and consequent. The Recognition Scene, for instance, was the moment where all these aspects found their best balance, providing the necessary lyricism and clarity.
As much as Patrice Chéreau, director Livia Sabag decided to present Elektra as a family drama and, in order to remove any hint of monumentality, she opted for an Ingmar Berman-ian atmosphere, “Cries and Whispers” a clear inspiration. The set shows a cutaway side view of a mansion house – groundfloor features the servants’ dining room and a storage area where Elektra treasures her mementos of Agamemnon, while the second floor has an entrance hall plus some stretch of the garden under a cloudy sky. The horrors described in the libretto are only hinted at by the scared expression of the servants. For atmosphere, videos are sometimes projected on the set – an image of Elektra buried alive in the opening scene or a corpse being unveiled by a man’s hand during Klytämnestra’s nightmare scene. The closing scene had too much information (most of each unrelated to the Hofmannsthal’s description of subjects overwhelmed by the victory of the legitimate king) and I confess I could not fully understand what was going on. As far as I can recall, maybe the whole encounter with Orest and what ensued only happened in Elektra’s mind, for the last chords show her hanging herself in her little storage room while the corpse of Klytämnestra is shown in a bathtub (until then, it was lying on the floor of the entrance hall, where it had been shown to Ägysth), while the rest of the sceneries and all other characters disappear from sight. If I understood it correctly, this is a clever and insightful idea that could have been developed a little bit more steadily since Orest’s first appearance rather than the coup de thêátre staged this evening.