Verbier Festival 2017 Review – Elektra: Esa-Pekka Salonen Leads Dramatic Performance Worth Watching Many Times Over

From start to finish, Strauss’s “Elektra” pulls us into the dark night of the soul and its tormented landscape. There Electra does with us what she does to herself – rages, grieves, strains, plots and plans, and violates any chance she has for peace of mind or human freedom. If she thinks that such a prospect will grant her ease, she is wrong: there is no redemption for Elektra and no transformational height or moral compass retaken. A straight story of darkness come and darkness left, there is nothing more. She has lost her father, she hates her mother and her mother’s lover who killed him and she wants revenge. Who might not? A perfect vehicle for Richard Strauss, opera composer and conductor par excellence, and for his new ‘librettist’ – the playwright, Austrian Hugo von Hoffsmanthal. Strauss thought the play would make a fine subject for his follow-up to his “Salome,” written in 1906. He was right.

A Masterful Maestro

Verbier Festival’s 2017 Concert Performance of the Strauss masterpiece was equally so. Conducted by the justifiably renown maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen, pouring himself totally into the opera for its full hour and forty-five minutes, the young Verbier Festival Orchestra played with gusto and panache. Well-known for its mammoth size, the orchestra for “Elektra” doubles much of its instrumentation – winds, percussion, brass, and strings and includes celesta, glockenspiel, castanets, and two harps. A massive partner to the 16 singers on stage, the music soared and fell and roared and danced its way through the Swiss Alps summer night. Not a moment did Strauss leave us unchaperoned or Salonen unguided: when he wanted volume, Salonen inspired it freely. When he wanted pianissimo, again, he introduced it. Never did we miss a beat.

The aching twists of the protagonist’s grief and anger curl around and through the music, creating an arc of the terrible and the human. The dissonance fits like a glove as we are in the realm of the bloody. Contortions of vocal and musical kinds accent this. Even to moments of “Sprechstimme,” Atonal shifts accent the isolation Elektra finds herself on a barren shore –Allein! Weh, ganz allein.”  Through Salonen she and the music ransack the realm of the heart and psyche, as well as ordinary time by fusing past and present to infer a future that is inevitable tragedy. It is again a knockout.

Shrill and Murderous By Choice

The cast is suberb: a plethora of strong contrasting female voices are counterweighted by eight male ones, who sing and argue and weep and resort to whatever tactics they can use to match the wildness thrust upon them both by circumstance and enactment by the protagonists. Elektra, played by soprano, Lise Lindstrom, uses more than a traditional palette of colors. Onstage for almost the whole hour and forty-five minutes of the opera, she never flags. Each of her major encounters in the field of anguish fills us with both her and her character’s range of emotional power – whispers, shouts, shrieks, cries, growls of desperation, rage, giddy exaltation, exultation, and grief. Remarkably, Lise Lindstrom’s vocal capacity begins to seem infinite. Her voice here is rarely beautiful unless she wants it to be and winds up mostly slicing the shrill by choice, but always a constant hammer, forcing one nail after the other into the coffin that will become her mother’s, and that of Aegisthus. And she is not afraid to use it so. Hell-bent, this Elektra, smiling and mocking, unchecked, desperate and agitated, in her green robe, bedecked with floral neck design, is perfectly at home in the part, its range, its tonality, its violence. Never does she let us out of her grip. From facial variety – eyes staring, glinting, gleaming, closing, flashing, alarming – to hand gestures that cap some of the range and depth of her emotion – as well as body shift and switch, give us a whole woman, wracked by what she is determined to let be known.

Immersed in Confusion

Her first major counterpart is Chrystothemis, played by soprano Ingela Brimberg, and whose singing is a remarkably rich and ringing full sound. Just when we think that the orchestral and vocal sound couldn’t get any more dynamic and passion-filled, here comes Elektra’s sister, immersed in her own confusion and excitement, her fear and apprehension, never ceasing to be amazed by what her sister does and plans to do. A brilliant counterpart, both in role and performance, Chrystothemis too, never ceases to ply and beg and question what is going on, what is beaming through the world she has lived in. She strikes too into the heart of her sister’s demands. Still, violence smittens her too, as she questions her sister’s daring.  Together, the two women offer an inordinate range of sound – just when we think it has gone as far as possible, they go further – but also of style and agitated and brutal emotion. Through them, Strauss also reveals what may be a fantasy-view of all-powerful women and some of his other heroines in “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Salome,” “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” and, in this opera, perhaps above all – they do more than dreams and nightmares suggest.

Murderous Mother

Then, there is the great Klytaemnestra, performed by Anna Larsen. Brilliant in her red gown, she takes the stage with a mezzo-soprano that sinks and climbs until the tighter Elektra squeezes her into the truth of her situation. Her alarm increases as she proceeds, as her daughter cajoles her: “Wenn Das Rechte Blut opfen untern Beile fällt (When the right blood falls under the ax…).” But, she is never not so alarmed by these acts, except at the moments she feels the need to justify her actions –not only ruling with her lover, Aegisthus, but also the basis of having done such a deed to punish a man-king-husband- who has sacrificed their other daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods for a victorious battle. Eye for an eye for an eye? And so it goes.

Elektra duets with each family member, one at a time, and so the opera remains ambushed by her rage. Never does Strauss give us a chorus of more than one major character when Elektra aims her arsenal. Thus the royal, from her corner, like a wild beast, garners each attack, and reduces her opposition to dust. What a prosecutor. Never does she shrink from her task – “Was bluten muß Dein eigenes Genick (What blood must flow? That from your neck)” – even when it demands that she push her prey further into the realm of evil. Never does she collapse under the weight of it, what it signifies and what it requires of her: Elektra’s enraged grief requires her to enter and re-enter the terrain of brutal jealousy, anger and rage, with and without posturing. Even in her duet with the returning and, at first unfamiliar seeming brother, Orest, we are not let off the hook. When Orest encounters her, we not only feel the rich beauty of his dark voice weighting us back on earth, if not below, with its power, but also, with the surety, that we will not be left stranded, by idea alone: Orest knows whereof he speaks, and he will carry out what is necessary, no holds barred.

Back to Earth

Eric Owens, the American bass-baritone, shows us his commitment to task and presentation, from the moment he steps out on the stage. No question. He might have been waited for: he may have been thought dead, but, no doubt, at the very moment he steps up to his sister and her lust for retribution, he has arrived. And he is more than up to his task. With Owens’s  deep and wide-reaching voice, we have no question either about his success in the deed to come as well as assurance to his agitated and quasi-hysterical sister that the results will be favorable.

Aegisthus, played powerfully by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhäcke, appears near the conclusion, and what a well-placed appearance it is. The tenor, a minor player of the major psychological drama, is the instrument of its enactment. Does he know this? Maybe so. Maybe, finally. He is querulous, his voice fighting itself as well as the charges leveled against him, and it is so perfect. He is pushed back into a corner of the world he had heretofore ruled; but he is imposter in that world, however he bedded its queen, and, clearly, daughter-point-of-view or not, he doesn’t hold a candle to him. If he ever thought so – clearly, Elektra is there to show him he is dead wrong. His protest is too much. The fiery bravado with which he sings, more than burns him to death, even before his murder.

Solid Direction

The maids, the surrounding cast of supporting characters, perform their roles with ease and taste.  Director Christian Leblé elevates the line-up of performers, neither dismissing nor over-accenting them. From the women in their harmonious dresses – brown through various states of green to black – shows their choral function both as unit and individuals. No names, but clear dramatic identities, so too, the male servants who stand and watch and wait, until they are discharged on their particular mission. Excellent directing, apt weight on stage, at each juncture of the unfolding tragedy.

Elektra was the first collaboration between Hofsmannthal and Strauss, but not the last. They went on to compose “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Ariadne auf Naxos,” “Arabella,” and a fruitful collaboration it was. The right amount of eroticism, wit, musical awareness, point, dramatic alchemy enriched the early 20th century with operas that have not only blended late 19th century themes –women’s imperative for assertion of power and action, their own eroticism – with the 20th century proclamation that they are here to stay and exactly as they want to be, it throws down the gauntlet to critics and audiences alike. Neither dark nor wrong, these views, they said, and the world in which they appear – better shift any of their narrow or static views to make room for them. Elektra, her sister and mother, like Salome, like the later Octavian and the Marschallin, not to mention Ariadne, do not plan to go anywhere. What Strauss initiated on his own, and von Hofsmannthal on his, came together and created terrain that is unique and well-fit to the shifting milieu of the first half of the 20th century. When Eka-Pekka Salonen first raises his baton with the exhilarating opening chords of the opera and brings down at the tragic finale, we are more than ecstatic they did not.

Medici.tv will continue to replay “Elektra” for free until November 6th, with subscription. 

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