Richard Strauss – Elektra

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, June 22 2005

Conductor: Christoph von Dohnanyi. Production: Matthias Hartmann. Elektra: Deborah Polaski. Chrysothemis: Eva Maria Westbroek. Klytämnestra: Felicity Palmer. Aegisth: Jerry Hadley. Orest: Markus Brück. Der Pfleger des Orest: Philippe Fourcade. Ein junger Diener: Ales Briscein. Ein alter Diener: Scott Wilde. Die Aufseherin: Susan-Marie Pierson. Erste Magd: Mary Ann McCormick. Zweite Magd: Doris Lamprecht. Dritte Magd: Heidi Zehnder. Vierte Magd: Irmgard Vilsmaier. Fünfte Magd: Tracy Smith-Bessette. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really outstanding production of Elektra, and it has occurred to me that, with a great libretto, well worth concenrating on, great, tight music and little on-stage action, it’s a prime candidate for a semi-staging concentrating on carefully-directed interaction between the singers. This was one of those occasions, quite frequent at the Opéra National, where a director with little experience of opera (this was only Hartmann’s second) seems carried away by the sheer size of the golden egg laid at his feet by the obliging French taxpayer and blows it on a vast and complex set, only, then, to lack big enough ideas to fill it. Elektra’s sheer compactness contributed to this – its is basically, after all, a simple series of monologues and confrontations between just five main protagonists.

Here, the set was huge, black and handsome, in an industrial kind of way, occupying the whole of the Bastille’s generous stage at various levels, open to the rear and sides (so entries and exits were long visible, and it was through these backstage spaces that threaded the odd carnival procession representing Klytemnestra’s dreams) and continuing around and in front of the orchestra, where Elektra sang her opening monologue and left her bag-lady bag (containing the axe and Orest’s threadbare teddy) throughout the work.

The rear was occupied by the palace: a high, raised wall of black, corrugated steel pierced by a large rectangular window to the left and a narrow door to the right topped with the triangular motif of the lion gate at Mycenae. This was not just a façade: through the (glassless) window we could see a bare floor stretching back, and Klytemenstra appeared at the rear to make her way across this space long before she had to sing.

Between the stage apron and the palace, steps led down to a basement area running back under the palace, in which Agamemnon’s glittering mantle was displayed in a spotlit glass museum case. A shrine, perhaps, soon to be inaugurated, since this underground space was roped off with yellow-and-black plastic ribbon and watched over, from a single chair, by Orest, who must have slipped in disguised as a guard; and to the left of the stage was a makeshift podium strewn with odd chairs, as if waiting to be laid out for guests. To the right, a kind of glassed-in laundromat, where the modern-dressed servants did the royal washing in and drying in laundromat machines and coloured plastic baskets. The presenceof this palace laundry so near to Agamemnon’s shrine was a puzzle. A gangway descended across the open basement space from the lion door to the stage apron, and was often spotlit from the front to cast large, expressionistic shadows over the door.

The chief Konzept seems to have been to make this bloody tale less black and white by making Orest a reluctant hero. He looked un-heroic: with curly hair, in a smart black suit and black, collarless shirt and glasses, more like a German stage director than a son of Agamemnon and a not a little like Schubert. Twice at least, he turned back on the gangway to be faced, and repulsed, by Polaski’s tall, straight, resolute and no doubt rather fearsome Elektra.

And no, she hadn’t been able to give him the axe, so he found himself hesitantly approaching his mother, in view through the open window space, with nothing in his hand; he turned back again with a despairing gesture, only to be handed a knife by his tutor. Finally, to emphasise how much this hero malgré lui was in a way the victim of the tragedy decreed by the gods, Klmytemnestra (a skeletal, powdered, frail Nancy-Reagan type figure in big hair, silk pyjamas and sleek high heels) had to throw herself on the knife, giving way to her own inexorable fate.

And though at the very end, the mantle was fetched from its underground case and placed on Orest's shoulders, once left alone, he cast it off.

Not bad ideas, these, but somehow lost in the sets and interfered with by others, less successful: why was one of the servants, a veiled muslim woman, so often on stage watching Elektra, fascinated? Was it fascination with Elektra the free woman of action? Or was she, as one critic suggested, a symbol of the danger of carrying revenge (for 9-11) too far? Also, at times Hartmann clearly didn’t know how to handle the odd timing music imposes on operatic action and was reduced to having Chrysothemis wave her arms to the heavens in corny, imploring gestures.

So, on to the singers, Polaski first. My neighbour’s first remark, at the end, was “she ought to retire from this role.” That, I thought, was an ungrateful comment, but I could understand what he meant. Polaski’s Elektra is massive, rough-hewn and frayed, as if torn from the rock with bare hands through sheer force of commitment. The top notes are achieved by approaching them from below and pushing up, hoping that the vibrato will make it even if the underlying note doesn’t. The only beautiful sounds are in quiet passages in the medium. The rest is, thus, a triumph of experience, artistry and determination. For commitment of this kind, I forgive a great deal, so it was fine by me, but I can see why there were flame wars about her on French bulletin boards from the dress rehearsal on.

The critics are, on the other hand, unanimous in their praise for Eva-Maria Westbroek. I checked, and fortunately for my self-esteem the first time I heard her (as Madame Lidoine) I noted that she was “new to me and is someone I’d like to hear again soon.” Hers is a big, radiant voice and she sang the (after all rather thankless) part from start to finish and made the most of her parting shot in a way that very nearly reminded me of Voigt in the same role, years ago. She will be back in Tannhaüser next season, I think, and should do a good job of that other dumb-blonde role (I hope she’ll merit a better dress this time: whenever a German production team comes to town, the costumes are dreadful)).

Felicity Palmer seems now to be specialising in monstrous old crones, but doing it while still in decent voice: a dark but piercing Klytemnestra, still able to sing the role rather than mumble her way through it with the occasional hoot, as is sadly common. Her decaying society hostess was, to me, the best drawn character of the evening.

Markus Brück sang Orest like a Lied, in an elegant, clear though slightly under-powered baritone (these wide-open sets didn’t help anyone’s projection). Jerry Hadley was on unexpectedly poor form as Aegisth, making a hash of all the high notes.

The pre-Bastille orchestra of the Opéra National was simply unable to play all the notes in Elektra. Things have come a long way since then and under Dohnanyi they were on very good form. Though his “analytical” approach allowed a great deal of detail to come through what, I suppose, might be a muddy score in some hands, to me it seemed that, between the moments of obvious excitement, he let the tension drop too far (I like Elektra fast and furious, I expect to be exhausted at the end). It was suggested to me, however, by an eminent critic that a more relaxed approach might better suit this “de-mythifying,” less black-and-white production. Perhaps so.

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