Elemental: Elektra at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Strauss – Elektra

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Klytämnestra – Doris Soffel
Chrysothemis – Manuela Uhl
Orest – Tobias Kehrer
Ägisth – Clemens Bieber
Der Pfleger des Orest – Seth Carico
Ein junger Diener – James Kryshak
Ein alter Diener – Stephen Bronk
Die Aufseherin – Stephanie Weiss
Die Vertraute – Nicole Haslett
Die Schleppträgerin – Alexandra Hutton
Erste Magd – Annika Schlicht
Zweite Magd – Rebecca Jo Loeb
Dritte Magd – Jana Kurucová
Vierte Magd – Fionnuala McCarthy
Fünfte Magd – Elbenita Kajtazi

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – Kirsten Harms.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Thursday, April 7th, 2016.

During the months of March and April 2016, the Deutsche Oper is presenting a major retrospective of the works of Richard Strauss.  In addition to tonight’s Elektra, there are performances of Die ägyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier in existing house productions.  Additionally, there was a new production of Salome by Claus Guth which I regrettably was unable to see.  When tonight’s Elektra was originally premiered, it was performed in a double bill with an abridged version of Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra.  I actually saw this show back in 2009 but with the passage of time, I must admit that I don’t remember much other than it took place in the same set.  I thought of it tonight simply because in the final scene, Elektra was joined by a corps of lady dancers who danced along with her costumed in a similar dress.  They seemed to have come from nowhere and it made me wonder whether in fact in the original production they had played a more prominent role.

Kirsten Harms sets her staging in what appears to be the bottom of a garbage chute.  Indeed for those of us who grew up with the original Star Wars movies one almost expects Chrysothemis to show up in a long white shift with bagels attached to her head.  The floor is covered in earth and the addition of the dancers in the final scene reminded me of Robert Carsen’s Paris staging.  Indeed, tonight’s suffered from a similar issue in that the earth on the stage affected the acoustic properties of the set and there was a more noticeable difference than usual when the singers were singing at the front of the stage than at the back.  It certainly provided a logical enough framework for the action to take place in.  There was however one major non sequitur.  Klytämnestra first appears carrying the axe.  As she hears the news of Orest’s death she forgets about it and leaves it in the earth.  Later on Elektra prowls with it and forgets to hand it to Orest.  It left me wondering whether given the circumstances, would those in power really have allowed Elektra to freely roam the palace with the axe, or did it in fact mean that Klytämnestra left it with Elektra deliberately as she subconsciously knew what Elektra would do with it?  I found this somewhat problematic and Harms didn’t really resolve this.  Perhaps ultimately, the question that Harms doesn’t answer is why, if this is such an appalling place that Elektra lives in, do Klytämnestra and Chrysothemis freely roam in it?  I’m not quite convinced that Harms completely answers the issues that she raises but as a staging it is certainly revivable.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß
Photo: © Bettina Stöß

 Musically however tonight really was something very special indeed. This was my fourth encounter with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role, following Aix-en-Provence, Milan and Zürich.  Her detractors would say that a few notes are not hit à point, the top isn’t quite as sustained as it could be and she was a little breathless at the end.  I would respond that, with all due respect, they are missing the point.  Hertlitzius is a truly exceptional singing-actor who makes every role she takes on come to life.  Indeed, I can’t think of any Elektra I have heard or seen in the twenty years I have known this opera on record and in the theatre who has been note perfect.  Yet none of them has given the sheer psychological, musical and dramatic insight that Evelyn Hertlizius brings to the role.  Every evening in her company becomes transformative through her mighty vocalism and attention to text.  The way she shaded her cries of ‘Orest!’ in the recognition scene was remarkable, every single time she uttered the word the voice taking on a seemingly limitless palette of colours.  The voice fills the room completely, overtaking the listener with its sheer size.  Yet, she also files it down to a whisper thereby bringing the spectator into the world of the character she is playing.  She can produce some ravishingly silky sounds in her middle register and expand with a remarkably full bottom.  The top tonight was perhaps not quite as reliable as it was in Zürich last summer but she produced some phenomenal high Cs and Bs that completely filled the theatre.  There is no doubt in my mind that she becomes Elektra through her engagement with the text, her acting that draws the viewer in and her total command of the role.  Hertlizius hit greatness once again tonight.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß
Photo: © Bettina Stöß

Manuela Uhl was a fine Chrysothemis.  Her pearly tone was nicely contrasted with Hertlizius’ more grounded soprano.  She was a little thin on top and somewhat breathless in her opening scene but it was certainly decently sung and she held her own with her sister.  Doris Soffel’s veteran Klytämnestra was a performance led by the text.  She now has two very distinct registers that aren’t fully integrated and the bottom of the voice sounds somewhat arid.  Many of the notes weren’t hit head on and in several places the role seemed more spoken than sung.  And yet, Soffel was absolutely magnetic and completely gripping.  The way she manipulated the text was something very special indeed and she struck sparks off her relationship with Hertlizius’ Elektra.

Clemens Bieber’s Ägisth also sounded somewhat dry, especially on top as he didn’t quite hit the last notes of his scene.  Despite that he sang with a lieder singer’s attention to text and this was most welcome.  Tobias Kehrer sang Orest in a firm, well-focused bass.  His was definitely a much more resonant Orest compared with the bass-baritones or baritones we usually hear in the part.  The voice was absolutely even from the top to bottom, the registers fully integrated and the high G-flat nicely placed.  Very impressive.  The remainder of the roles reflected the high standards of the house.  Some of the maids were perhaps a bit approximate with their pitching but I was particularly impressed by the ease with which James Kryshak’s tenor negotiated the awkward tessitura and Seth Carico making much of little with his wonderfully rounded baritone.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß
Photo: © Bettina Stöß

I found Donald Runnicles’ conducting to be excellent.  He clearly has the measure of the score and a full understanding of its architecture.  The way he negotiated the orchestration, knowing when to give the band free rein and when to pull back was really striking.  Indeed, dynamics were used throughout the performance in an extremely intelligent way.  As Klytämnestra sang ‘ich habe keine guten Nächte’, the way the orchestra voiced the chords and allowed the orchestration to creep along was really quite impressive.  Another moment that stands out is as Elektra remembers that she didn’t give Orest the axe, the accents in the running string figures, which are so often ignored, were really brought out.  Runnicles paced the work as an organic whole.  The downside was that in some places, it perhaps needed more flexibility to really allow the dance rhythms to come out.  Otherwise, the score was extremely well played by an orchestra on outstanding form tonight.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß
Photo: © Bettina Stöß

This was a tremendous evening in the theatre capped by an account of the title role by a truly exceptional singing-actor who turned the routine revival of a 10 year old production into something truly special. She was joined by a very fine cast in a performance that used the text to allow the work to really come to life and by an orchestra on glorious form.  The staging itself was inoffensive enough if perhaps lacking in any particular new insights.  What it did offer however was the framework for the audience to witness greatness and we really did tonight.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin © Leo Seidel

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