In the season in which Richard Strauss’s 150th birth anniversary is celebrated, the opera house in his birth city offers a treat for Straussians with three of his operas: Die schweigesame Frau, Arabella and Elektra. This first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a reprise of Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 production (as seen on video in Christian Thielemann’s DVD from Baden-Baden). As the director himself says, this staging eschews any attempt of characterization other than acting: the stage is practically empty, costumes are basic and there are two stage props (a royal robe in the style of the Bavarian State Opera curtain and, of course, the axe). As it is, with very little to see, one truly pays attention to what the singers are doing. This evening they were basically trying to guess which part of the stage the followspot would light and then jump onto it. Most singers seemed a bit at a loss figuring out what to do, the more gifted in the acting department doing their thing. The various examples of poor blocking suggest that there were not enough rehearsals for the cast to understand what they should do and – more important – why they were doing it. The closing scene looked almost unintentionally comic with all surviving members of Agamemnon’s family raising their arms for no particular reason while trying to make a tragedy face.
In terms of conducting, the performance seemed to be as reticent as it staging. Although the Bavarian State Orchestra produced rich and transparent sounds throughout, the conductor showed himself particularly reluctant in terms of pulse and forward movement. This libretto and this score abound in text and music that should simply erupt into sound. This evening, however, no firework in Strauss’s powerful score caught you by surprise: one could see the gunpowder being lighted, then count one, two and three to finally see the effect actually happen. On saying this, I do not mean that every performance of Elektra should sound like Georg Solti’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. On the contrary, by saying this, I mean the understanding of the musical-dramatic structural coherence that focus all recurrence of motives in their appropriate theatrical purpose. As it was, at some point, when the proceedings actually required some impact, Maestro Fisch finally forced his hand and brought about a brassy, unsubtle but not truly expressive sound in his otherwise excellent orchestra. To be honest, this performance’s best moment were invariably the more lyric passages (such as the Recognition Scene), when the beauty of the orchestral sound and the conductor’s consideration to his cast invariably paid off.
Although Evelyn Herlitzius took some time to warm up and, even then, she understandably shortened the difficult high c’s, she remains unparalleled in clarity of diction, understanding of the libretto and stamina. Although my memory of her 2011 performances in Berlin shows her then in more exuberant vocal health, I found that this industrious soprano proved to have never ceased to improve her singing in this role. This evening, I found her less prone to squalling than I would expect. Many high notes were roundly and goldenly sung and, to her own risk, she tried to produce softer dynamics in some dangerous passage, not always very successfully, truth be said. Her Chrysothemis was Adrianne Pierczonka, who was occasionally fazed by long high-lying phrases. The Canadian soprano, however, sang with fine projection, crispy delivery of the text and animation. Compared to her performances in Berlin under Marek Janowski, Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra sounded marginally more comfortable in her low notes, but still uncongenial in a role that requires an entirely different voice, I am afraid. Even her intelligence and insight cannot hide the contre-emploi (as the French would say). As much as I respect her artistry, I still believe Strauss wrote the low-lying part for a reason. Günther Groissböck was a dark, firm-toned Orest, somewhat stiff at times, but it seems that thi is what the production expected from him. Among the minor roles, Okka von der Damerau (as always) called attention with her finally focused and powerful singing.