The Day Will Come: Elektra at the Salzburger Festspiele

Strauss – Elektra

Klytämnestra – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Elektra – Aušrinė Stundytė
Chrysothemis – Asmik Grigorian
Aegisth – Michael Laurenz
Orest – Derek Welton
Der Pfleger des Orest – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Die Aufseherin – Sonja Šarić
1. Magd – Bonita Hyman
2. Magd – Katie Coventry
3. Magd – Deniz Uzun
4. Magd – Sinéad Campbell-Wallace
5. Magd – Natalia Tanasii
Die Vertraute – Valeriia Savinskaia
Die Schleppträgerin – Verity Wingate
Ein junger Diener – Matthäus Schmidlechner
Ein alter Diener – Jens Larsen

Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker / Franz Welser-Möst
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski.

Salzburger Festspiele, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria.  Friday, August 21st, 2020.

For its other opera production of this, its hundredth season, the Salzburger Festspiele presented this new staging of Elektra directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski.  For it, the Festival assembled a cast of principals among the most exciting vocal and dramatic talents of their generation.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

As one might expect, Warlikowski chose to open the evening not with the Agamemnon motif, but with a monologue from the Oresteia declaimed by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Klytämnestra.  It made for an arresting opening, putting Klytämnestra’s motivations front and centre, taunting Aušrinė Stundytė’s Elektra, who seated at the side of the stage, shook with emotion, clearly traumatized by hearing all of this relived.  The way that Baumgartner intoned the text seemed to segue completely naturally into the opera itself, feeling of a piece and heightening the impact of what was to follow.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

The stage of the Felsenreitschule is exceptionally broad and narrow.  Warlikowski made full use of it, benefitting from the excellent sightlines in the theatre.  The set, by Warlikowski’s long-term collaborator Małgorzata Szczęśniak, was a vision in chrome.  A set of showers to the right, with a Perspex cube which seemed to be the main reception rooms of the palace on the left, were combined with a shallow pool, together with video images created by Kamil Polak.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

Warlikowski gave us a world of superstition.  The opening scene saw a naked woman showered by a matriarchal figure.  Later, we saw the matriarch performing a rite within the cube over a body, her actions magnified by video above the stage action.  This is a place, then, where humans are sacrificed to bring resolution to stop nightmares.  There’s a logic to Warlikowski’s storytelling in this Elektra that I found utterly convincing.  It abounds in small insights.  The projection of blood onto the back of the stage during the murders, morphing into a swarm of flies as the chorus lauded Orest, magnified the impact of the music.  The way the bodies were lined up in the cube after the murders, and how Chrysothemis tended to them, showed that these were just one more sacrifice in a place that has seen so many.  The maids who greeted Orest with flowers, or the maids revealed to be seated at the back of the stage just before the murders – as if conscious that something bad was about to happen.  All of these elements, helped to feed into and create this staging’s visceral impact.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

Unlike other Warlikowski stagings that abound with references to movies, this felt a more concentrated, more focused, yet equally impactful evening.  With the stone arches of the Felsenreitschule as a background, this intensive concentration on the bare bones of the drama made the staging feel very much redolent of antique Hellenic theatre, yet at once also utterly contemporary.  It focused concentration on a narrative that had no choice other than to run to its grim conclusion.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

What gave this production even more impact was the sheer detail that Warlikowski elicited from his principals, all of whom created such vivid and compelling performances.  Not least Stundytė in the title role.  Hers isn’t a conventional Elektra, one focused on vengeance at any cost.  Rather, she makes Elektra a vulnerable, damaged woman.  One for who revenge was a dream racked with doubt.  As she sang ‘dein Tag wird kommen’, Stundytė injected a vulnerability to the tone, one that made it sound less an affirmation and more a desperate need to believe.  Physically, Stundytė is tireless, constantly moving around on stage, yet seemed desperately haunted, as if living with the need to express something that cannot be verbalized.  Her soprano is somewhat soft-grained but not lacking in power – she rode the orchestra with ease in the big moments where it counted – but she was also able to float the tone with tenderness in the recognition scene.  Yes, intonation occasionally lost focus, but I left with a sense that Stundytė has completely mastered this beast of a role and furthermore sings it with absolute fidelity to her instrument, never succumbing to the temptation to push it further than it can go.  Her Elektra is one that lives, very much through the text.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

Asmik Grigorian sang a Chrysothemis that soared with ease through the challengingly high tessitura, pinging out streams of silvery tone on high.  Hers is a Chrysothemis who isn’t quite as innocent as she may seem – the knowing glance at Aegisth suggested someone who know what she was capable of, and knew how to get it.  As Klytämnestra, Baumgartner is no tired harridan, rather a woman in the prime of her life, living with a deed that has left her racked with guilt.  Her mezzo is in fabulous shape, rich and velvety, and through her native diction, she savoured the text with delicacy.  She also negotiated the passaggio-crossing tessitura with great assurance.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

As Orest, Derek Welton sang the role in an extremely firm bass-baritone, the emissions even, with full attention given to the text.  Despite the relatively short stage time accorded to his character, he managed to map the journey of a man from determined assassin to utterly broken.  Michael Laurenz gave us an extrovert Aegisth, his tenor bright and handsome in tone, in a role so often given to the superannuated.  In the remaining cast, a special mention for Bonita Hyman’s rich contralto and Deniz Uzun’s juicy mezzo in the maids.  Natalia Tanasii sang a fifth maid that had wonderful sheen – perhaps aiming to graduate to Chrysothemis soon.  Matthäus Schmidlechner brought a youthful tenor to the Young Servant.  The remaining roles, as well as the stirring interjections of the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, reflected a quality one would expect at this address.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

I must admit to some initial skepticism as to Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting.  At first, it felt somewhat leisurely, the opening scene taken in a more measured way, lacking in the ultimate degree of crackling energy that one might expect.  It seemed that Welser-Möst was prioritizing transparency of texture over volume.  The Wiener Philharmoniker responded as one for him, giving us playing of a universe of orchestral colour – screeching woodwinds, silky strings, and brass calling from the pits of hell.  As the evening, progressed, it became clear that Welser-Möst was taking the long view, all working up to the murders and that explosion of joy with the entrance of the chorus, followed by the ecstatic final duet.  Amplified by the stage action and video, the effect was overwhelming, bathing the auditorium in a sonic and visual glory.  Needless to say, the quality of the orchestral playing was sensational.

Photo: © SF / Bernd Uhlig

With this Elektra, Warlikowski has given us a staging that is a focused burst of adrenaline, a family tragedy that could only result in a gruesome end, and from where, nobody could remain unscathed.  He was blessed with a cast that gave us utterly uncompromising visions of their roles, topped by an assumption of the title role that gave us a performance that truly lived.  Combined with orchestral playing of an exceptionally rare quality, this was an overwhelming evening in the theatre.

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