Strauss - Elektra

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday January 31 2010

Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Production: Guy Joosten. Sets & costumes: Patrick Kinmonth. Lighting: Manfred Voss. Klytämnestra: Natascha Petrinsky. Elektra: Nadine Secunde. Chrysothemis: Annalena Persson. Aegisth: Donald Kaasch. Orest: Gerd Grochowski. Der Pfleger des Orest: Franz Mazura. La Monnaie orchestra and chorus.

I don’t usually do favourites, but even I can unhesitatingly say Elektra is one of my favourite operas. The trouble these days could be I’ve been too lucky with it in the past. I’ve heard Gwyneth Jones (“heard” is too feeble a word for such awe-inspiring volume) and Deborah Polaski (at the right stage in her career and the wrong) in the leading role, Deborah Voigt at her absolute peak as Chrysothemis, without a doubt the best, and, of course, Rysanek as Klytemnestra, not to mention Helga Dernesch and her peculiarly memorable cleavage. I was even present at a famous (in Paris at any rate, among operagoers of my age) Radio France concert performance at the Champs Elysées in which Maureen Forrester, Ute Vinzing and Rysanek (then singing Chrysothemis) screamed at each other breathtakingly in expensive, ample evening gowns, prodigious jewels and big hair (Hanna Schaer was a mere maidservant). As for recordings (of which that, incidentally, is one), we’re spoilt for choice, aren’t we?

I haven’t had such luck of late; or else the luck I’ve had has made me picky. I was looking forward to Elektra at La Monnaie, hoping to be suitably harrowed, but in the end I was underwhelmed: it was fair enough, but not harrowing.

Nadine Secunde’s Elektra had waited for her brother a bit too long. She threw herself into it alright, it was a game performance and well acted. But, as often happens as careers advance, experience, artfulness and ingenuity had to be mustered to make up for lost range: nearly all of her top notes were flat, the higher the flatter, while a broad vibrato strove to give the illusion they were achieved. As I mentioned to a friend, much as you respect the singer and admire her cunning (OK, artistry would be a kinder word), you eventually get fed up and long for the real thing. “A shipwreck,” said my neighbour on the right at the end. Not really, I thought; the real shipwreck was Polaski’s last outing at the Bastille. No, Secunde was still a fair Elektra, working hard at it, but the problem is, with Elektra that isn’t what you come for.

The Swedish Chrysothemis (Annalena Persson) had a younger, brighter voice, lots of volume and all the notes, but it was metallic ("acide," according to that neighbour), and when she and Secunde sang together it was a festival of vibrato, a tangle of notes. We both preferred the glamorous Klytemnestra (Natascha Petrinsky) and above all Orest (Gerd Grochowski), though as an actor he lacked charisma. The only time I was really stirred all afternoon was when he was around. His tutor was visibly a veteran, and lo and behold when I looked him up, believe it or not it was Franz Mazura, born in Austria in 1924 (!), erstwhile Wotan and Chéreau’s Doktor Schön!
The orchestra (though La Monnaie doesn’t have as big a pit as Strauss might have liked: room for only 6 double basses, for example) was at its best in the kind of performance that goes for balance and clarity rather than deafening volume, more Alpine Symphony than expressionist modern. Personally, as I like noise I’d have preferred being deafened, at least at “Orest!”

I sometimes wonder why opera houses change productions so soon. Apart from the fact that the Paris Opera has already had three different versions of St François d’Assise, the Werther brought in from Germany last year has already been ousted by an even duller one from Covent Garden. Why, I wondered aloud to the regulars afterwards, has La Monnaie already got rid of Braunschweig’s Elektra? I don’t remember anything much wrong with it and it isn’t as if we’ve had much chance of getting bored with it.

After his Werther (better than either of those Paris ones) and excellent Lucia at the Cirque Royal, Guy Joosten’s Elektra struck me as, in the end, not so striking. Modern productions now have their conventions, and in that sense it was somehow conventional. The maids, for example, as the curtain rose, were in a locker room, changing into their uniforms: grey for guards, with caps and machine guns, and white for nurses, with caps and aprons. Aegisth returned from what had clearly been a louche party, in SS uniform and with SS guards in carnival masks, one of them young and handsome and half-naked.

The single main set showed a dark courtyard where either building or renovation works had stopped some time ago: the corrugated iron sheeting at the back, the scaffolding bearing gangways at first-floor level and the amber industrial lights were all rusty against the crumbling, blind-arched palace walls. Temporary wooden stairs on the left led up to a single door; the only other way on or off stage was through an open trap in the floor. Much of the space was cluttered with oil drums, one of them converted to a brazier. Elektra’s “lair” was a space under a low, guarded watch-tower, curtained at the back, with a tatty Empire chaise longue, a mirror, and belongings (including the axe) stored in a cardboard suitcase under the bed.

There were some good ideas, especially Elektra and Klytemnestra getting squiffy together on whisky (served on a tray by a nurse) and both pealing with laughter at the idea of Aegisth being manly. At the end of the scene, when Klytemnestra, after some serious grappling with her daughter, started her manic cackling, Elektra at first joined in till she realised something was wrong. Also good was Elektra, as the murders went ahead and all hell broke loose in the palace, calmly dressing and making up as a princess again and burning her dirty old things in the brazier before entering the palace. But it was less good, for that reason, to have no dancing at all, though the libretto mentions it so often throughout; and less good still, during the final bars, for the backdrop to rise to reveal Elektra dead in seated Orestes’ arms, Pietà-like, amidst a heap of bloody bodies on a broken, blood-stained balcony.

Still, as I told my critical young neighbour on the left, most productions of Elektra are worse, and musically if this wasn’t absolutely top-notch, it wasn’t rock-bottom either. Trouble is, faint praise sounds so damning…

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