R Strauss: Elektra

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: R Strauss
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Elektra
PERFORMER: Linda Watson, Jane Henschel, Manuela Uhl, René Kollo, Albert Dohmen; Vienna Philharmonic Choir; Munich Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann; dir. Herbert Wernicke (Baden-Baden, 2010)
CATALOGUE NO: OA 1046 D (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 Munich production, here revived at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, is a striking staging of Strauss’s Sophoclean tragedy but not a cinematic one. The set is essentially a huge black vertical panel that occasionally pivots slightly on its diagonal axis to allow narrow bands of colour to seep around its edges or more dramatically to reveal a bare wall and monumental staircase.

There are just two props: a heavy, gold-embroidered, scarlet cloak – presumably the murdered Agamemnon’s – which Clytemnestra initially bears as a burden, Electra then treats as a comfort-blanket, and Orestes finally dons as his royal mantle; and an axe – presumably the one with which the king was killed, though it looks very shiny and new, and Electra here wields it from the very start, though the libretto has her digging for it in the dust just before her avenging brother’s return.

Perhaps taking its cue from Electra’s repeated cry of ‘Allein!’ (‘Alone!’), the production presents all its characters as both alone and alienated from one another. Even in the recognition scene, when Orestes and Electra do finally face one another, it is with eyes shut tight. Above all, there is no stage action to match the events so graphically depicted in Strauss’s teeming score – no beating of the Fifth Maid, despite the sound of birch rods in the orchestra; no approaching cortège for Clytemnestra’s entrance (she is merely revealed already in situ on the red-lit staircase); no climactic dance for Electra, who instead merely gets to swing her axe, almost sedately, before slowly turning her back on us and her axe on herself.

Possibly in reaction to the statuesque starkness of the staging, Thielemann seems to want to tone down the score’s mythic violence and tease out its moments of human (essentially womanly) warmth. The result is as soft-edged as much of Hofmannsthal’s rather mawkish text but the orchestra still plays magnificently and richly deserves its on-stage curtain-call.

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In the accompanying 15-minute ‘Making of …’ documentary both Watson and Uhl agree that they love the production precisely because it allows them to focus on the music and the audience to focus on them. So much for opera-as-theatre. Mark Pappenheim