Croatian National Theatre Rijeka 2018-19 Review: Elektra

Richard Strauss’ Matricidal Masterpiece Electrifies The Audience On The Adriatic

By Jonathan Sutherland
(Photo: Dražen Sokčević)

For many opera houses, the idea of staging Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” sends bean-counters in the Finance Department into spasms of Klytämnestra-like apoplexy. Their concern is not the need for five expensive A-list “Don Carlos” soloists or the cost of a colossal “Boris Godunov” chorus, but the logistics of enlisting 111 musicians to play 120 instruments. The financially astute composer was mindful of such difficulties and wrote an abridged orchestration for 80 players which is still a lot of sound – even without the Wagner tubas.

For a small city such as Rijeka on the Croatian coast to attempt such an undertaking on the occasion of the opera’s centennial was a brave step by Intendant Marin Blažević who also directed the production. “Elektra” had only been performed in Croatia twice before. The first time the pounding Agamemnon D-minor motiv rent the Hrvatska airwaves was in a semi-staged version in Zagreb in 1976.

The charming Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka does not have nearly enough room in the pit to accommodate the full “Elektra” orchestra and even the reduced score exceeds capacity by about 20 desks.  Blažević solved the problem by reversing the traditional placement and put the orchestra on stage behind the singers who followed Finnish maestro Ville Matvejeff’s cues from monitors placed around the auditorium.

This would have been fine if the orchestra pit was entirely covered but Alan Vukelić’s set design was a small raised square dais extending into the auditorium which the singers accessed from a steep flight of stairs. All entries were preceded by heads and torsos reminiscent of turbaned groundhogs popping up to take a sniff at the weather.  It also meant the space available for movement was akin to performing the opera in a rope-less boxing-ring. There was no actual set structure so the “staged” production was actually more like a cleverly costumed concertante performance. The singers were so close to the audience the more stentorian voices risked rupturing the eardrums of the eager Elektraphiles seated in the first few rows.

Questionable Ideas

There were some questionable production ideas. Like many directors not content to let the highly descriptive music speak for itself, Blažević showed Klytämnestra’s murder then unscripted assault by domestic servants turned Furies. Such an astute dramatist as Huge von Hofmannstahl understood that Strauss’ terrifying orchestration was much more effective in stimulating the imagination of the audience than risking a risible reaction to a stagey stabbing.

The scratchy lower strings’ semiquavers and flatulent bassoon and trumpet interjections which accompany Klytämenstra’s off-stage screams need no visual enhancement. Agamemnon made an extra-textual guest appearance as a bloodied poltergeist and the tiny stage area in the final scene was littered with more dead bodies than the end of “Tristan und Isolde.”

Perhaps reflecting Euripides’ reference to Orest’s facial scar, all members of the Agamemmon clan had ugly gashes on their foreheads. Whilst this could allude to the monarch’s Marat-like murder in the bathtub, it was nevertheless an unlikely form of genetic vitiligo. Similarly the household staff had severe scarring under their tight turbans. Terry Dubrow’s cosmetic surgery skills would have made him a motza in 5th century BC Mycenae.

The onstage orchestra played Strauss’ kaleidoscopic score with plenty of blast and bang notwithstanding the composer’s enigmatic claim that “Elektra” was “Mendelssohn fairy music.” Seymon Bychkov rightly noted “there must be transparency and sensitivity to the text” but in this case instrumental translucency was notably scarce.

Maestro Matvejeff didn’t hold back on decibels, particularly in the brass, and the enlarged HNK Rijeka orchestra was generally impressive although winds needed a lot more finesse. Strings were soaringly lyrical in the rhapsodic bars after “zeig dich deinem Kind” and the lengthy vivo molto orchestral passage before the Orest’s entry with raspy trumpets and serrated strings had plenty of bite.

The fortissimo recapitulation of the Agammenon motiv in the last 20 bars was marred by a few premature entries. The most striking aspect of Matvejeff’s reading was the ponderous pacing. Even retaining the “traditional” six cuts, total performance time was close to one hour fifty-five minutes. Solti’s celebrated 1971 recording is more than five minutes shorter but it is uncut with an extra ten minutes of music.

Challenging Diction

Apart from the roles of Elektra and Chrysothemis, all the other singers were local. The short appearance by the HNK Rijeka chorus was inspiring and as they only have to sing the word “Orest,” there were no problems with diction.

Palazzo Agamemnon’s staff of maids one through five were acceptable although their German pronunciation was closer to Dubrovnik than Dortmund. Third Maid Morana Pleše was more than capable and die funfte Magde was powerfully sung by Ana Majdak who nailed the 10-beat top A-natural on “Elektra” with Brünnhilde bravura.

The vocal weakspots were all on the male side. A thinly-voiced Sergej Kiselev as the young servant had problems penetrating the orchestration in “Platz da!”  and the top B-flat on “Tod” was pushed and bleaty. Saša Matovina failed to made any impression as the old servant and Slavko Cingula was huffy and puffy as Orest’s tutor.

The relatively short role of Aegisth featured Marko Fortunato, who was not nearly as felicitous as his name would imply. The vocal range is hardly Bacchus-like but Fortunato had noticeable difficulties in overcoming the orchestration and the high B-flat on “niemand” was entirely subsumed by the musicians.

The part of Orest was interpreted by Dario Bercich. Admittedly the character is a tad interminable, but Bercich’s shock at discovering the disheveled gamine asking “Was willst du fremder Mensch” was in fact his once beautiful royal sister was almost blasé.  It was as if Orest had stumbled upon a friend of a friend on Facebook.

“Ich muß hier warten” had neither grit nor gravitas. Although Bercich has an agreeable mid-range timbre, intonation in the chromatic “weil wir bezeugen können” phrase was less than pristine. The important leise direction on the first “Orestes lebt” was ignored in preference for a Town Crier-ish hooty proclamation. The broad tessitura of the role presented obvious difficulties and Elektra’s fog-horn delivery made Bercich’s relatively small projection even more noticeable.

Strong At The Top of the List

Finnish soprano Helena Juntunen was a strong Chrysothemis but in many ways too similar to Elektra in timbre to provide the ideal musical contrast. This was particularly evident in the “Sie fahren dahin” duet as serious slaughter takes place chez Agamemnon.

Admittedly Chrysothemis is a role with significant spinto demands (not to mention five B-flats) but it still needs a lighter silvery color to highlight the relatively gentleness of the child-yearning ingénue trapped between her psychotic sibling and certifiable mamma.

“Kinder will ich haben” was far too hefty for the tender textual sentiments and “kommt nicht heim” and “immer sitzen wir” chest notes needed more traurigkeit. There was impressive strength in “will ein Weiberschicksal” and “Orest ist tot” rising to a clarion A-natural but the voice frequently developed an unpleasant metallic edge and fluttery vibrato.

George Bernard Shaw considered the confrontation between Elektra and Klytämnestra “an atmosphere of malignant and cancerous evil.” The traditional cut from Elektra’s “ich bin wie ein Hund” to the killer A-flat on “endlich sterben” severely reduced the impact of the contretemps.

Fiery red-haired local mezzo Dubravka Šeparović Mušović was a natural for the Mommy Not So Dearest role.  An accomplished singing actress in the Zinka Milanov tradition, it was surprising that this was Šeparović’s first Klytämnestra. The diva from Dubrovnik was not exactly “behängt mit Steinen und Talismanen” but Sandra Dekanić’s striking costume design involved an enormous translucent cape the size of a small tent which needed the support of not one but two Schleppträgerinnen. The cloak was inset with a myriad of irregular shaped reflecting shards turning the nightmare-ridden regicide into a Beelzebub Batwoman in a flashing shower curtain.

An acclaimed Azucena and Eboli, Šeparović brought intelligence and depth to a role which can easily degenerate into the trap of vulgar overacting. Whilst there may not have been Resnik’s incomparable word colouring or Varnay’s personification of pure evil, this was a thoroughly nuanced performance with a number of original musical ideas.  Šeparović made some deliberate upward sliding attacks on “so-auf”, “gelämt” and “lebendigen leibes” which reflected the repugnant regina’s likely alcoholism evinced from “mein leber ist krank”. In a lesser singer these glissando-like slides would be disparaged, however the Croatian mezzo brought dramatic justification to her inventive word painting.  “Schlachte, schlachte” was so gutsy the notes seemed to come out of Šeparović’s sandals and the low B-natural on “Warum” was similarly sepulchral.

There were more meaty low C-sharp chest notes on “Das klingt mir so bekannt” which still managed to cut through the orchestration. “Wie ein Kleid, zefressen den Motten” was rightly spat out rather than sung. There was impressive attention to the dynamic markings such as a creamy pianissimo D-natural on “Kraft”. Šeparović’s upper range was bright and burnished with an excellent fortissimo top G-natural on “Blut” and the five-bar sustained G-sharp on “Schlaffe” was  roof-raising.

Maida Hundeling brings considerable experience to the title role, although up until now the German spinto has not sung Elektra in any major houses. The voice is absolutely huge and given the action took place virtually in the auditorium itself, the decibel levels were seismic.

The upper tessitura with its eight B-flats and four C-naturals were tossed off with an absolute assurance of pitch and projection rarely heard since Inge Borkh or Birgit Nilsson. G-naturals above the stave exploded with extraordinary power. The piercing A-natural on “Es ist nicht war!” would have convinced Aristotle the world was flat.

For all the octane, Hundeling was less than discerning about the dynamic markings and there were frequent piano attacks which spread almost immediately into a crescendo. The top B-flat on “erhabenes,” A-flat on “seliger” and G-sharp on “Königs” are perfect examples of this crescendo craze although “seliger” was very close to coming unstuck.

Other dynamic dilettantism occurred in “Es ist die Stunde” which is marked liese but was attacked full voice. Similarly, the F-sharp on “das Werk” should be delivered pianissimo, not fortissimo. On the other hand, “Selber eine Göttin” had a delicious pianissimo G-sharp; “Lässt du den Bruder nicht nach Hause” was exactly leise as scored and “ich diene hier im Haus” testified to Hundeling’s technical capacity for dulcet phrasing which she employed far too seldom. Rich chest notes such as “wo sie dich geschlachtet haben” were round and fruity but there was a marked gear change between chest and head voice.

The long cut when Elektra promises to be her sister’s “slave with benefits” before the Jochanaan-esque “Sei  verflucht!” is dramatically difficult to justify. Similarly deleting the “Ich habe alles, was ich war” passage removes any sympathy the audience may have for this Freudian case-study of pathological hatred and sexual ambivalence as it reveals that Elektra herself was the victim of paternal incest.

There was some contemptuous word coloring on “Tochter meiner Mutter, Tochter Klytämnestras” but overall diction was surprisingly nebulous for a native German speaker. Although clearly a major vocal talent, Hundeling could do with some coaching in dance tempi. Like the happy-clappy public during the perennial “Radetzky March” at the Vienna New Year’s Concert, her stomping during “Schweig und Tanze” was ahead of the beat.

The staging of this immensely difficult work in a small Croatian opera house was a credit to Marin Blažević’s insight and artistic judgment. The sold-out house went wild proving that Croatians are good at more than just football, tourism and inventing the necktie.


ReviewsStage Reviews