Becoming Elektra: Elektra at the Opernhaus Zürich

Strauss – Elektra

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius

Klytämnestra – Hanna Schwarz

Chrysothemis – Emily Magee

Orest – Christof Fischesser

Ägisth – Michael Laurenz

Der Pfleger des Orest – Reinhard Mayr

Ein junger Diener – Iain Milne

Ein alter Diener – Bastian Thomas Kohl

Die Aufseherin – Marion Ammann

Die Vertraute – Shelley Jackson

Die Schleppträgerin – Alexandra Tarniceru

Erste Magd – Liliana Nikiteanu

Zweite Magd– Julia Riley

Dritte Magd – Irène Friedli

Vierte Magd – Guo Sen

Fünfte Magd – Ivana Rusko

Chor der Oper Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Lothar Koenigs

Stage director – Martin Kušej.

Opernhaus Zürich, Zürich.  Sunday, June 28th, 2015.

Premiered in 2003, Martin Kušej’s staging of Elektra was filmed at the time and subsequently released on DVD.  Having seen it on the small screen, the staging had a very different impact live.  Especially in such an intimate venue as the Zürich theatre, the sets (Rolf Glittenberg) seemed even more imposing than they did on TV.  One of the biggest attractions for me tonight was getting to hear Evelyn Herlitzius’ Elektra in this intimate space.  The most striking aspect of her portrayal, and indeed that of the whole cast’s, was the sheer clarity of the text.  I don’t think I have ever attended a performance of Elektra where the text has been so clear from every single singer, that the surtitles were completely superfluous.  Despite the momentous sound coming from the over-sized band in the pit, every single member of the cast managed to get her or his lines across with the utmost clarity.  In turn, this meant that the drama really came to life.

The staging itself was interesting.  As I mentioned, the sets themselves were most imposing, a dark corridor redolent of a black-and-white horror movie.  This was a decadent society, given over to sex in all its forms – there was clearly a polysexual orgy taking place just before the entrance of Klytämnestra.  There was also more than a suggestion of incest in the interactions between Elektra and Chrysothemis and Elektra and Orest.  The trippiest moment came with the presence of samba dancers during Elektra’s final dance, it sounds crazy out of context but in context it provided a genuinely striking stage picture.  I’m not convinced that some of Kušej’s ideas don’t point to misogyny – the idea of male characters feminizing themselves in the opening as they dress up as maids to paint a picture of a society on the brink of a fall feels a little clichéd and uncomfortable.  Likewise, towards the end as the chorus sings Orest’s name, a group of actors portraying patients in a psychiatric unit comes from nowhere and leads to nothing.  At times, the use of the extras perhaps suggests an unwillingness to allow his principals to drive the drama.  Nevertheless, what Kušej manages to do is to nail the claustrophobic atmosphere of the palace in a unique way and it is a highly watchable and engaging piece of theatre.

Opernhaus Zürich - Elektra - Oper von Richard Strauss 2014/15 ©Judith Schlosser, e-mail:, Bankverbindung: ZKB, 1137-0586.405, IBAN:CH7000700113700586405, SWIFT:ZKBKCHZZ80A
Evelyn Herlitzius Photo: ©Judith Schlosser

Evelyn Herlitzius simply is Elektra.  From her very first ‘allein’ to her closing ‘schweigen und tanze’ she completely inhabits the character.  Indeed that ‘allein’ seems to come from within the very core of her body, the sound is so connected to its owner that by completely owning the sound, she completely owns the character.  The sheer volume is staggering – when she gets to ‘was bluten muss?’ the voice takes on the most incredible amplitude, the size of the high C just enormous.  If I say she didn’t so much ride the orchestra as overwhelm them, this is not an overstatement.  Herlitzius has something very few singers have – the ability to grab one’s attention and not let it go through sheer force of sound and theatrical engagement.  It resonates throughout her and by extension, throughout the theatre.  Despite her highly demanding diet of roles, the voice was in fabulous shape tonight – the vibrations were even and she filed her tone down to an impressive and tender pianissimo in the recognition scene.  Yes, a very small number of notes were not quite hit straight on, but when are they ever?  Even if we have some very fine exponents of the title role around today, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Herlitzius owns the role and belongs in the pantheon of the greatest Elektras of all time.  This isn’t hyperbole, she really is that good.

Emily Magee has a reputation as one of the leading Straussian sopranos around at the moment and was a fully committed Chrysothemis.  The voice blooms nicely at the top and the middle of the voice shows a wonderful warmth.  Unfortunately, the registers were not completely integrated and the lower-lying phrases sounded like a bit of a struggle.  The sustained high declamatory writing also sounded somewhat taxing.  The tone itself has a rich glamour and she shirked absolutely nothing in her duets with her sister.  Magee has proven herself a fine Ariadne and Kaiserin in the recent past and I wonder whether Chrysothemis is a good fit for her or whether she was in fact indisposed and no announcement made.

Opernhaus Zürich - Elektra - Oper von Richard Strauss 2014/15 ©Judith Schlosser, e-mail:, Bankverbindung: ZKB, 1137-0586.405, IBAN:CH7000700113700586405, SWIFT:ZKBKCHZZ80A
Evelyn Herlitzius, Hanna Schwarz Photo: ©Judith Schlosser

Hanna Schwarz certainly offered big grand gestures as Klytämnestra.  The veteran mezzo, now in her 70s, still has the ability to dominate a stage through her physicality.  Interestingly, the top of the voice is in good shape, projects well and the intonation is true.  At the bottom, she was really quite liberal with her pitching, at times seemingly in a different key to the orchestra.  Yet she was absolutely magnetic to watch, fully inhabiting her role and her extended monologue was indeed powerful.  She brings a lifetime of experience to the role and if the voice doesn’t quite do what its owner wants it to do, she is still a redoubtable Klytämnestra.

Christof Fischesser gave us a rock-solid Orest, the voice carved from granite yet with a sensual warmth that embodied Kušej’s conception of the role.  The voice sounds so healthy, not a hint of strain anywhere, the registers completely integrated and vibrations even.  Martin Laurenz sang Ägisth with a narrow, youthful tenor that had lots of cutting power and managed to fill the auditorium nicely.  I was impressed by Iain Milne’s highly lyrical young servant and Ivana Rusko’s Fifth Maid sung in a big voice with a touch of metal that suggests that one day she may well be heading towards the title role in the future.  The remainder of the maids and assorted servants were respectable, with credit to Irène Friedli’s Third Maid and Guo Sen’s Fourth Maid who really made much of the text and brought the drama to life.

Opernhaus Zürich - Elektra - Oper von Richard Strauss 2014/15 ©Judith Schlosser, e-mail:, Bankverbindung: ZKB, 1137-0586.405, IBAN:CH7000700113700586405, SWIFT:ZKBKCHZZ80A
Christof Fischesser, Evelyn Herlitzius. Photo: ©Judith Schlosser

Since this was the first night of the run, some tentativeness in the musical direction might be excusable but the truth is that Lothar Koenigs was a highly responsive and sympathetic accompanist to his singers.  There was a genuine sense of him listening to and working with his artists to produce the very best result.  He also brought out much detail in the score that I hadn’t previously been aware of and the phrasing was genuinely lyrical, very much in tandem with what was happening on stage.  The Philharmonia Zürich gave us playing of the very highest quality – the rhythmic precision was staggering and they brought out the violence, the lyricism and the dance elements inherent to this multifaceted score.  The off-stage chorus was a little too distant for my taste.

This was a thoughtfully cast and highly riveting performance of one of the most demanding operas to sing.  It was performed at the highest level by a fully committed and energetic group of artists.  In many ways it was a revelatory performance, the intimacy of the Zürich venue allowing so much detail to emerge from the textures, both vocally, through the clarity of the diction, and through the emergence of often hidden details in the orchestration.  It was headed by a truly great exponent of the title role, one who has the size of voice that the role requires but also great tenderness where it matters and who tonight hit greatness.

Opernhaus Zürich - Elektra - Oper von Richard Strauss 2014/15 ©Judith Schlosser, e-mail:, Bankverbindung: ZKB, 1137-0586.405, IBAN:CH7000700113700586405, SWIFT:ZKBKCHZZ80A
Evelyn Herlitzius Photo: ©Judith Schlosser

One comment

  1. I am glad you enjoyed Herlitzius as Elektra as having heard and seen live myself she really is something to savour.

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