Living with Trauma: Elektra at the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Strauss – Elektra

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Chrysothemis – Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest – Alan Held
Ägisth – Thomas Randle
Der Pfleger des Orest – Franz Mazura
Ein junger Diener – Florian Hoffmann
Ein alter Diener – Mariano Viñuales
Die Aufseherin – Renate Behle
Die Vertraute – Renate Behle
Die Schleppträgerin – Andrea Hill
Erste Magd – Bonita Hyman
Zweite Magd – Andrea Hill
Dritte Magd – Silvia Hablowetz
Vierte Magd – Marie-Ève Munger
Fünfte Magd – Roberta Alexander

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Josep Pons.~
Stage director – Patrice Chéreau.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Monday, December 19th, 2016.

This was my third encounter with the late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra following the inaugural run in Aix-en-Provence in 2013 and at the Scala the following year.  I must admit that back then, I was quite skeptical about it.  I felt that there were too many non-sequiturs and too many elements that did not quite, for want of a better word, work for me.  The maids sweeping the stage for a few minutes before the music begins, for example, robbing the arresting opening of its impact, or Ägisth walking around Klytämnestra’s body and not seeing it.  And yet it seems that a couple of years’ distance has made all the difference.  I left the theatre completely convinced by Chéreau’s vision, here revived by Vincent Huguet, and the work of an exceptional group of singing actors.

Evelyn Herltzius © Antoni Bofill
Evelyn Herltzius © Antoni Bofill
The personenregie is highly intricate – so much is communicated through a glance or a tiny, imperceptible detail.  At the very end, the Fünfte Magd extinguishes her candle as Orest walks away, as if to say that what needed to be done was done.  We don’t know what happens next but what we can be sure of is that nothing will be the same again.  This was a closed society living and dealing with unspeakable trauma.  As a result of this, it may well be that the servants are suffering from Stockholm syndrome.  Klytämnestra has a lot of power over them – just before she enters, we see them scurrying around and with her entrance, they fall prostrate at her feet.  Whereas previously I hadn’t been convinced of why they would be so terrorized by such an apparently reasonable figure, tonight it was clear that Klytämnestra’s power came from her understatement and the power that comes from a fear that is perhaps more perceived than real and of dealing with living in a traumatized place.  In that respect the staging could not be more timely.  As Klytämnestra’s murder is revealed, the maids appear to be devastated by the fact, unable to reconcile living in a place where the rules no longer apply.

Ensemble © Antoni Bofill
Ensemble © Antoni Bofill
I found that Chéreau also made much of the subtle power relations between the ‘old’ regime represented by Agamemnon, Elektra and Orest, and of the new of Klytämnestra and Ägisth.  He achieves this by turning what we conventionally know on its head.  Whereas usually the Fünfte Magd is sung by a young soprano, here we have a veteran – Roberta Alexander, still in radiant voice – and her physical mistreatment by the other maids in the opening scene is shocking.  Tonight, I was also more convinced by the murder of Klytämnestra, on stage, the lighting seemingly darker than before so that Ägisth wasn’t able to see her as he entered.

Evelyn Herlitzius © Antoni Bofill
Evelyn Herlitzius © Antoni Bofill
Of course, any Elektra lives on the strength of the singer of the title role and in Evelyn Hertlizius we had one of the very greatest interpreters of this formidable assignment.  What struck me tonight is how absolutely right her Elektra feels.  In this incarnation, hers is a feral, restless woman – she never, ever stops being Elektra throughout the entire evening; a small glance, a grimace, the constant moving around, Herlitzius is tireless.  Her opening ‘allein’ was elemental and grabbed me immediately by the scruff of the neck and didn’t let me go through her use of text and the total union of word, note and physicality.  Of course the voice has amplitude – when she opens up at the very top of the voice, the effect is unforgettable, not so much riding the oversized orchestra as out-singing it.  I’m sure that some will point out that the high Cs were not quite à point but more than any other singer of this role I have seen or heard, she becomes Elektra.  The voice also has an autumnal beauty that suits the way her character blooms in the recognition scene.  Make no mistake, we were in the presence of greatness tonight.

Evelyn Hertlitzius, Adrianne Pieczonka © Antoni Bofill
Evelyn Hertlitzius, Adrianne Pieczonka © Antoni Bofill
Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis was sung in a soprano that had silk as well as steel.  It did feel that she took a while to warm up, the very top sounding slightly frayed in her initial ode to childbirth.  She warmed up nicely, however, to sing with increased freedom on high and she more than held her own with her sister.  Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra was certainly most grippingly acted but, to be frank, the voice isn’t what it was and she was frequently inaudible   There’s much to be said for her verbal acuity and she was a watchable stage presence but I longed for a Klytämnestra with more voice.

Waltraud Meier © Antoni Bofill
Waltraud Meier © Antoni Bofill
Alan Held’s Orest was carved from granite – implacable and sung with a voice of depth and real metal.  Thomas Randle’s Ägisth was a blustering playboy, sung in a fruity tenor.  We had operatic history on stage with Franz Mazura as Orest’s Tutor and there’s most certainly still voice there.  The remaining roles were well taken, especially Bonita Hyman’s full-toned Erste Magd and Marie-Ève Munger’s crystalline Vierte Magd.

Franz Mazura, Alan Held © Antoni Bofill
Franz Mazura, Alan Held © Antoni Bofill
After his disappointing Figaro here last month, I was somewhat nervous about Josep Pons’ conducting.  I needn’t have been – his conducting was absolutely superb.  The quality of the playing that he achieved from the Liceu band was sensational.  So many details I had never previously been conscious of were brought out – how much the rising string figures in the recognition scene are prescient of Rosenkavalier for example.  His ear for orchestral colour is second to none – the shimmering high strings as Klytämnestra recounted her lack of good nights, or the way that he voiced the brass chords as Orest expressed his need to wait there.  The stage-pit coordination issues that plagued his Figaro were nowhere to be seen and ensemble was watertight all night.

Adrianne Pieczonka, Evelyn Herlitzius © Antoni Bofill
Adrianne Pieczonka, Evelyn Herlitzius © Antoni Bofill
This was an enthralling evening in the theatre, one that re-thought the work, making it feel as much of Sophocles as of von Hofmannsthal.  Indeed, the kind of society living with the trauma that we saw could be taking place right now in any war zone.  It was extremely well conducted and dominated by an account of the title role that deserves to be in the pantheon of the very greatest Elektras of all time.  This was an overwhelming evening of music theatre.

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