Richard Strauss - Elektra

ONP Bastille, Paris, Monday November 4 2013

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Robert Carsen. Sets: Michael Levine. Costumes: Vazul Matusz. Lighting: Robert Carsen, Peter Van Praet. Klytämnestra: Waltraud Meier. Elektra: Irene Theorin. Chrysothemis; Ricarda Merbeth. Aegisth: Kim Begley. Orest: Evgeny Nikitin. Die Aufseherin: Miranda Keys. Fünf Mägde: Anja Jung, Susanna Kreusch, Heike Wessels, Barbara Morihien, Eva Oltivanyi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

“Sobriety” may not be the word you expect to settle on to sum up a performance of Elektra, as I did this Monday. This could explain why some critics have claimed this production was “tame”.

R. Strauss
Musically, taken on its own terms, it was excellent – but some people might not subscribe to the terms. The orchestra was on magnificent form, playing Strauss better than I can ever remember; an amazing feat, to those of us old enough to remember when the Paris Opera orchestra couldn’t play Strauss at all. But Jordan kept them reined in: this was restrained Strauss, not paroxysmal. Not exactly “like fairy music by Mendelssohn,” as the composer suggested it should be played, but relatively cool and calm and collected, rather as Jordan, with his undemonstrative conducting style, appears to be. Strauss played, so far as such a thing is possible, like Haydn or Beethoven.

I’m also old enough – in fact you don’t have to be all that old – to remember Dame Gywneth Jones pounding the Bastille’s cavernous space into submission as Elektra and Deborah Voigt at her absolute peak as Chrysothemis. I even remember, clearly, Voigt’s unforgettably exciting note (a B, I think it is) on “Bru” in “Elektra, ich muss bei meinem Bruder stehn!” (Anyone interested can thrill to Voigt in the same role at around the same period with Marilyn Zschau on YouTube.) You can’t help comparing, but comparisons are odious, and this cast was beyond reproach – even, I might add, Jörg Schneider as the chap calling for “a horse, a wild ass, or a mule, or if not that, a cow,” a brief appearance that usually ends with a distinctly dodgy top note, but not in this case. He gets extra marks for that.

But again, “sobriety” was the operative word, and the dialogues, of which this work is, after all, largely a series, were sung with daring intimacy. Elektra’s confrontation with her mother was thus fascinatingly different from the usual panting slug-fest. The only question was, could people up on row 382 at the back of the second balcony actually hear the wonderful (and visually glamorous) Waltraud Meier? I was in row 15, and with the aisle (row 15 is great for stretching your legs), the fourteen rows in front plus the gaping orchestra pit between me and the stage, already I found the singers looking and sounding distant any time they moved away from the apron.

People don’t seem to have liked Carsen’s production very much, even criticising it for having too many wrong ideas. Yet coming after Py’s gimmick-filled Aida, it seemed to me positively minimalist. It was, again, sober. There was no curtain: Jordan slipped in in the dark. As the music started, and some light came on we discovered a titanic* space with sheer, vertical walls (and no doors) in what looked like slate, curving inwards at the base, and a brown, peaty floor. More like Agamemnon’s tomb than his palace, I thought, and that’s what it turned out to be when, once that tedious opening section with the maidservants was thankfully out of the way, a grave opened up in the floor and Elektra rose from her foetal position, in a disc of white light, and fished out his naked body to hug.

This was, I suppose, one of the ideas people didn’t like. Another was Elektra’s movements being mirrored, or emotions acted out, by 20-odd acolytes in the same plain black dress as hers. It's true there was, at least once, something perilously Busby-Berkeley-ish about this. They paraded the body around. Then there was Klytemnestra’s arrival, carried aloft by more women-in-black, on a litter: in fact, her bed, with silky white sheets matching her plain white slip. Aegisthus would later make his appearance in similarly silky white pyjamas and robe. The litter/bed was disposed of into the grave, which also served as palace entrance. This took flak for being somewhat incoherent. Elektra didn't dance at the end, apart from moving her hands (and I admit I missed the dance), but collapsed into the same position, face down in the peat, as at the start. Even the stark lighting, sometimes vertical, sometimes lateral and casting expressionistic shadows on the walls, somehow got some people’s goat.

I wonder what other productions they’ve seen? This cool, dark, choreographed show was perhaps more aesthetic than dramatic, but it suited the overall “sobriety”. And while Elektra is usually fairly well sung – I assume because nobody would be foolish enough to sign up for it without being sure of pulling it off – it isn’t necessarily well staged. None of the Paris productions I can remember, from post-nuclear bunkers to red-and-blue phalluses to gigantic, rattling metal structures, was especially brilliant. This, I decided as I walked out for dinner, was the best yet for me.

*OK, I was at the War Requiem the day before.

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