Victims of War: Elektra at the Staatsoper Berlin

Strauss – Elektra 

Elektra – Ricarda Merbeth
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Chrysothemis – Vida Miknevičiūtė
Orest – René Pape
Ägisth – Stephan Rügamer
Der Pfleger des Orest – Franz Mazura
Ein junger Diener – Florian Hoffmann
Ein alter Diener – Olaf Bär
Die Aufseherin – Renate Behle
Die Vertraute – Renate Behle
Die Schleppträgerin – Marina Prudenskaya
Erste Magd – Bonita Hyman
Zweite Magd – Marina Prudenskaya
Dritte Magd – Katharina Kammerloher
Vierte Magd – Anna Samuil
Fünfte Magd – Roberta Alexander

Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim.
Stage director – Patrice Chéreau.

Staatsoper, Berlin, Germany.  Sunday, February 24th, 2019.

Following its initial premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival back in 2013, Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra has led quite a peripatetic existence, with performances in Helsinki, the Scala, the Liceu and the Met.  It received its Berlin premiere back in 2016 with a similar cast to the first Aix cast, who had worked so closely with Chéreau before his passing.  With the passage of time, a new set of singers have taken on the key roles, with tonight Ricarda Merbeth replacing the originally-cast Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role.  Chéreau’s staging is notable for toning down the excesses of yore and instead bringing a psychologically cogent reading of the text, one where Klytämnestra, for instance, is less a raving nightmarish figure than a broken woman, desperate to find respite from her nightmares.  Back in Aix, I left the theatre unconvinced, but seeing it later at the Scala, and especially at the Liceu, actually made it seem a deeply fascinating and disturbing piece of theatre.  Getting to see this new generation of singing-actors taking on this, by now seminal, staging certainly made for a very tempting prospect.

What was most striking initially is how the strength of Chéreau’s narrative continues to provide a thought-provoking theatrical experience.  The idea of the older servants being loyal to Elektra and Orest, and the others loyal to Klytämnestra, is one I find especially interesting – the way that the older servants gathered around Orest as he revealed himself to Elektra in the recognition scene was especially moving, a moment of hope in the grimness.  This is a claustrophobic environment, the large metal door locked closed in order to keep the world outside, but in return, a place in which the inhabitants dream and fantasize about revenge, in Elektra’s case, and nightmarish visions, in the case of her mother.  Chéreau’s staging weaves its influence through understatement, a piece of theatre that remains in the mind long after the evening is over.  One in which small details register later, such as the fifth maid extinguishing her candle at the very end, symbolizing the fact that the deed that needed to be done is done.  Moreover, tonight there was never any sense of routine, of a cast jumping in for a short run.  Every single person in the cast, from the principals to the maids, lived their roles in performances of vivid power – both vocally and dramatically.  This is a world of people so profoundly damaged by war and murder that they are unable to relate to each other anymore, haunted by a desperate need for resolution, any resolution, in order to find closure.

Nowhere more so that in the role of Elektra herself.  Merbeth is an exceptionally fine technician and with this new role in her repertoire, which she debuted in this production at the Scala late last year, she is moving in to a new direction in her career.  Merbeth’s soprano sits relatively high which meant that her opening scene required some careful negotiations of the registers.  The voice took a little while to get flowing – the vibrations widened in the middle at first, and the cutting steel, so often a feature of her singing, was replaced by a softer grained warmth.  As the evening progressed, she warmed up and poured out some striking amplitude in ‘was bluten muss?’  In the recognition scene, the voice bloomed with lyric warmth, finding a beauty and tenderness that was most touching.  Her Elektra was a dramatic livewire, tireless throughout the entire evening, tireless also in her desperation and single-minded need for revenge.  The text was absolutely crystal-clear all night and the role was always sung, never screamed.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus 2016

Her Chrysothemis was Vida Miknevičiūtė, a new name to me.  She is the owner of a youthful soprano of quite impressive cutting power.  The tone is bright and has easy reach, and she soared effortlessly in her ode to childbirth.  The closing duet between her and Merbeth also filled the theatre in waves of soprano ecstasy.  It’s an impressive voice, but to my ears the technique sounds not quite finished, the top tending to stridency with the vibrations not under ideal control.  She also lost touch with the pit in several places.  There is undoubtedly a major voice there, but I hope that she has the right people around her who can help her to maximize her undoubted talent.  Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra is a known quantity from Aix, Milan and Barcelona.  It would be wrong to say that one cannot hear the passage of time in Meier’s mezzo, but I found that she was much more audible here from my seat in the first balcony, than she was at the Liceu.  The lower notes aren’t really there anymore and intonation came and went, but what is not in doubt is Meier’s verbal acuity and ability to really make the most out of the text – with every single word lived, even when the voice didn’t always respond.

René Pape was an implacable Orest, the voice big and carved from granite.  Stephan Rügamer’s Ägisth was sung with a lightness and intimacy redolent of the recital room, but which still managed to carry into the house.  The remaining roles were taken both by members of the house’s ensemble – what a luxury to have Marina Prudenskaya as the second maid – and by veterans and operatic legends, including Roberta Alexander still radiant as the fith maid and the 94-year-old Franz Mazura, an energetic stage presence and still able to articulate the text into the house.  I was especially struck by Bonita Hyman’s warm and juicy contralto as the first maid, and Anna Samuil pinging out with metal in the tone as the fourth.

The Staatskapelle Berlin played with a remarkable depth of sonority for Daniel Barenboim.  It’s quite a luxury to hear such a sophisticated band in the work, and they played with blazing power where needed but also subtble delicacy, particularly as Klytämnestra recounted her sleepless nights.  String intonation was always true, even in the more intricate writing, while the brass was full-toned but also somewhat accident prone in places with quite a few split notes over the course of the evening.  Barenboim gave the work romantic sweep, his tempi generally on the slow side, and there were moments when it was clear some of the cast would have appreciated things sped up slightly.  He was an exceptional accompanist, always allowing the voices through, despite the immense orchestration, and it meant that this was a performance the truly did live off the text.  There were points at which the slowness of the tempi meant that the dramatic tension sagged – the Elektra/Klytämnestra scene especially – and it meant that the transition into ‘was bluten muss’, which really should be of the most thrilling moments in the score, lost impact despite Merbeth’s fearless singing on high.  That said, he found a hauntingly lilting tempo to the recognition scene and he was always alive to the dance rhythms contained in the score.  The final pages blazed magnificently.

Ultimately, despite some reservations, this was actually a deeply satisfying evening in the theatre.  We were able to once again witness a psychologically probing production, one that looks deeply into a world where rationalism is lost to obsession, one in which everyone is a victim somehow.  It was also very well sung on the whole, both in the supporting cast, but especially in Merbeth and Miknevičiūtė who sang with thrilling, theatre-filling power.  The evening was received with a very warm ovation by the full house.

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One comment

  1. Yes it’s sadly getting to the point where Meier should pack it in (I think this is her only role). BUT she is an extraordinary artist and, like Mattila, has a profound connection to what she’s singing. It’s not just a question acting, they are both musicians

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