By Jason Victor Serinus
MUNICH — As if the clashing tonalities and Freudian-laced libretto of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s first operatic collaboration, Elektra, were not sufficient to engage an audience’s attention, Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 production of the opera subverts some of its creators’ already subversive intentions by reinterpreting key elements of the story. The results, seen at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) on May 17 with a cast headed by two great sopranos, Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra) and Iréne Theorin (Elektra), put a very different twist on this already twisted tale.
Gone was the garish make-up and over-the-top behavior often encountered in modern productions of the opera. Theorin’s riveting Elektra spent most of her time standing motionless, staring straight ahead into space. Her gaze was so strong and steady that she seemed less mad than totally fixated on revenge for the heartless murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Klytämnestra, and mommy dearest’s lover, Aegisthus (Ulrich Reß).
Not only were none of the opera’s many references to Elektra’s mad dance of triumph realized in Theorin’s movements, but the axe that she had buried in hopes it would someday be used as a weapon against the dastardly couple appeared in her hands from the start. In fact, at the unquestionably shocking end of the reinterpreted opera, that axe served a far different purpose from the one Hofmannsthal and Strauss intended.
While hardly Eurotrash — there was no blood, no patently obscene behavior, and nothing to send one out the door furious or in revulsion — Wernicke’s production forced the audience to ignore key elements of the libretto. It wasn’t the end of the world, of course, but the production too often thumbed its nose at Hofmannsthal at his most poetic.
Yet that was only one of many problems. Meier’s Klytämnestra seemed far too poised and regal for a demented murderess so haunted by her dreams that she even turned to her crazed and hateful daughter for help. Wearing a turban, Meier at age 59 bore a strange resemblance to the deluded Gloria Swanson in the classic movie Sunset Boulevard. In fact, in a strange piece of casting, it was Ricarda Merbeth (Chrysothemis), Elektra’s meeker and far sweeter sister, who actually looked and sounded as one might expect Klytämnestra to appear.
It would be nice to think that this was an act of intentional subversion in the casting. But it’s far more likely, given that Klytämnestra often serves as a vehicle for aging divas whose voices have grown harsh, that those responsible figured they were scoring a coup by engaging the gifted Meier for the role. The fact that her voice has not grown harsh, however, was somehow overlooked in the process.
Blood is another thing we expect in an opera set in a castle whose walls and floors must be constantly cleansed of blood. Instead, at key moments only, we got orange and red lighting. It may have been a bit too obvious, but at least it assured us that something in this staging was proceeding as intended.
Given that the characters were not necessarily acting out the words they sang at any particular time, it was up to the singers to carry the day. In this respect — in virtually any respect, really — Theorin was nothing short of miraculous.
At age 52, she remains at the top of her vocal game. Even in places in the range where her vibrato naturally widens to a dangerous degree, the center of the pitch was as spot on and readily discernible as her gaze was unstinting. I had previously seen Theorin as Turandot at San Francisco Opera and Isolde in Bayreuth, and it was in this performance that I found her voice most under control.
Theorin’s voice also seemed ideal for Elektra. Her high notes, while never shrill, had a color that consistently declared that something terrible was destined to happen. Both vocally and physically, Theorin was a pillar of artistic strength. In phrase after phrase, she hurled out razor-sharp, blazing highs with a power and purpose declaring that Elektra was determined to get her way in the end.
One of Theorin’s many gifts is the ability to soften her voice. Between her numerous fasten-your-seatbelts assaults, she emitted, when artistically appropriate, quiescent tones of stunning sweetness. It was quite a feat, especially when she flawlessly swelled from caressing piano to disturbing triple forte. Such impeccably managed technique helped create extra sympathy for a tortured character who had only revenge on her mind.
Despite being unable, at least on this occasion, to match Theorin’s volume at the top of her range, Meier sang with the steadiness and surety of old. If neither voice nor demeanor in any way suggested that she was disturbed, let alone despicable, the surprising tenderness she shared with Elektra during the brief time that they moved close together onstage further confounded expectations. Gabriele Schnaut, and possibly even Agnes Baltsa, both of whom take over for Meier later in the run, both have the potential to provide the sonic elements that Meier’s restrained Klytämnestra lacked.
Merbeth, too, sang with admirable steadiness. But there was nothing in her less-than-beautiful voice and countenance to convey Chrysothemis’ hesitation and frailty, let alone inspire sympathy. This made conductor Asher Fisch’s uncommon ability to make the final duets between the sisters sound like the tender foreshadowings of Der Rosenkavalier’s rose-tinted duets into a near-miraculous act of transcendence. I suspect both Adrianne Pieczonka and Anne Schwanewilms, who succeed Merbeth later in the run, will portray Chrysothemis with greater success.
As Orest, Günther Groissböck sang with handsome, dark tone, but his strong Germanic profile and rather heartless projection conveyed not an iota of love or tenderness for his sister. Instead, as Klytämnestra’s scarlet and gold cloak was passed from mother to daughter to himself, he seemed little more than bloodthirsty and determined to regain ownership of the crown and rule with an iron fist. The production’s final tableau, where Elektra dies while Orest stands motionless on the steps above, like a bronze statue atop a Roman arch of triumph suggested that nothing would change in the kingdom with the passage of time.
In smaller roles, Reß made for a suitably weak Aegisth. Even though none of the five maids suffered onstage, they sang quite well. The two young male servants seemed out of vaudeville, which at least took the action back a few decades earlier than Sunset Boulevard. And the chorus, when it sang, sang well.
Far more important, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester played superbly. Under Asher Fisch’s strong hand, they went to town in the extended orchestral passages toward the opera’s end, to tremendous effect. What a glorious din they made.
Ultimately, it was Theorin’s night. Without engaging in the echt-Straussian discussion of which is more important, the words or the music, she made clear that when the words are ignored, it is up to the musicians to save the night.
Theorin did more than supply first aid; she was positively brilliant. If her Elektra, which she repeats on May 21 before ceding the role to Evelyn Herlitzius and then Elena Pankratova, is not considered the crowning jewel of her career, it will only be because she has many more years to go before such a declaration can be made with authority. The performance schedule is here.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Stanford Live, and many other publications, including CVNA. He has taught classes on opera and art song for both Osher Lifelong Learning (Bay Area) and Peninsula College (Port Townsend, WA). As a professional whistler, he whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon.