Greek Tragedy reflecting European Politics?

ItalyItaly Richard Strauss, Elektra. Augmented Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Teatro dell’Opera Rome, 2.10.2011 (JB)


Conductor – Stefan Soltesz
Stage Director – Nikolaus Lenhoff in co-production with the Salzburg Festival
Sets – Raimund Bauer
Costumes -Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting – Duane Schuler


Clytemnestra – Felicity Palmer
Elektra – Eva Johansson
Chrysothemis – Melanie Diener
Aegithus – Wolfgang Schmidt
Oreste – Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester

(Note: I have used the English spelling of the familiar Greek names except for the title role where I have preferred the German k over the bizarre English c.)

Lust is a warm-blooded sin and possibly attractive for that reason; vengeance is cold-blooded – it involves as much head as heart. The Church, in its wisdom, condemned both sins as deadly. Deadly here means with a propensity to take over the rest of the perpetrator’s life.

Richard Strauss had already produced a masterpiece on lust with Salome (1905). He then seems to have taken Mae West’s witty advice: Whenever I’m faced with a choice of two sins, I always pick the one I haven’t tried. He enthusiastically (Miss West would say you should always sin enthusiastically) picked up Hofmannstahl’s suggestion. They wrote Elektra (1909)

Hofmannstahl had already scored a resounding success with his stage play of Elektra and Strauss had been in the audience when they agreed on the collaboration for the opera.  With wrath (to give the sin its technical name in the  Church’s sin catalogue)  as its central theme, one act without interval of an hour and a half was judged right to  sustain the necessary tension.  The same formula had worked perfectly with the lust of Salome. Hofmannsthal and Strauss were acutely aware of the differences of the sins. Hofmannsthal was steeped in the then recent writings of Freud. Strauss called for the biggest orchestra he would ever use in an opera. So it is quite a good idea for the audience to fasten their seat belts.

Strauss is on record for calling out at a rehearsal into the orchestra pit, Louder! I can still hear Frau Heink! Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861- 1936) was probably the greatest operatic contralto of all time, as the power and beauty of her recordings testify.  She created the role of Clytemnestra, declaring, I will never sing the role again. It was frightful. We were a set of madwomen. Regina Resnik much later made something of a speciality of the part and recorded it with Solti conducting and Nilsson in the title role. For understandable reasons, good Clytemnestras are thin on the ground.

The Rome Opera had Felicity Palmer, recently made a Dame of the British Empire by the UK’s Queen. On today’s scene, I doubt whether you will find a finer Clytemnestra: her voice is always perfectly focused with a thrilling (or should that be chilling?) richness of tone in the lower register, much helped by the conductor (more of whom in a minute) and vibrant, expressive high notes which are never screechy, not to mention a stage-presence which would have put Callas in the shade. My hat off to Dame Felicity.

Eva Johansson has already made the title role her own in numerous leading theatres. And no wonder. She even makes some beautiful sounds in the role which Birgit Nilsson never managed.  Amazingly, she never forces. Her insanity comes from her very depths and she succeeds in a most remarkable way in drawing in the audience into all the angst. Moreover she has learned the almost impossible art of making melodrama seem natural. Hers is an Elektra we end up warming towards in all her horrific complications.

Chrysothemis, as her relatively sane sister, is required to have a lighter and kindlier voice.  The Rome Opera perhaps went a little too far in this direction by having Melanie Diener in the part. Dramatically she was fine and moved with the grace of a dancer, but especially in the scenes where she is in despair with her sister, she sounded underpowered.

Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester had all the right bearing, dignity and air of mystery for Oreste, though I would have liked a little more voice in places. Wolfgang Schmidt made the most of the brief and thankless role of Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegithus, who in some versions of the story had assisted the Queen in her murder of Agamemnon. Hofmannstahl had wanted to do away with this role but Strauss protested that the opera was already too short on male voices.  So any objection to the brief, scrappy appearance of Aegithus should be laid at Strauss’s door rather than Herr Schmidt’s. This gives me an opportunity to add my conviction that Strauss always came off better when he heeded Hofmannstahl’s advice. Not so with Aegithus.

As a schoolboy and first-time tourist to Greece, I remember being much more overawed by the awesome, soul-chilling remains of the Palace of  Mycenae than the poetry and grace of the Parthenon. I recently learned that Hofmannsthal and Strauss, on separate first visits, felt the same impact. So much so that Hofmannsthal was careful to provide with his libretto a ground plan of the Mycenae Palace, structured from giant stone rocks in an architecturally disturbing harmony unequalled in its field. Mercifully, that ground plan has been used by almost all stage directors of the opera.

The Rome Opera is in co-production with the Salzburg Festival, where the staging was first seen last year, though with a different cast.  The stage director, Nikolaus Lenhoff is an admirable servant to Hofmannsthal’s ground plan. Doors and windows open up, often at an awkward angle, so reflecting the action taking place. Battleship grey predominates with white lighting (Duane Schuler). In the penultimate scene, a panel at the back opens to reveal Oreste’s bloody deed, with his Mother hanging upside down against blood-splattered walls. The costumes of Andreas Schmidt-Futterer are also in grey, and seem elegant until you register their shocking fascist import. Clytemnestra alone wears a pinkish sequin gown with a red cloak flowing over it.

Was the moving ovation at the end of the performance connected to the audience’s response to a mirror of today’s European politics? Italy knows that it will be the next for the chop in the European Union, so it welcomed with surprise the sincere applause which the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, received after addressing German businessmen in Berlin this last week. The latter know full well that the collapse of Greece will hasten their own fall. We’re not asking for applause, said the astute Mr Papandreou to a great round of applause!, but we are asking for respect. Angela Merkel has been cast as the Elektra of this situation, to be regarded as suicidal on the home front (why should Germans pay taxes for the Greeks?) while heroic on the European front (saving the euro).Germany often plays this double role with its Chancellor – hatred for the headlines and respect in private. And Frau Merkel knows it.Europe has no more capable politician.

Writing in the London-based Daily Telegraph last Saturday, Clemens Wergin, Foreign Editor of Die Welt says: And in most of the German media, as well as among the country’s European experts, it seems to be all the rage to advocate further European integration to get out of the mess of too much integration already. It is as if a doctor advised an alcoholic to drink more beer to get better.

An Elektra situation if ever there was one. And one to which Keynes had a positive answer.   The Germans (Frau Merkel aside) seem to be slow to learn from Greek tragedy. If I am to judge by their involved applause, the Italians are quicker.

In the meantime, Teatro dell’Opera has been handling its own Greek-style tragedy. Fabio Luisi, born 17 January 1959, so age 52, was contracted to conduct this Elektra. On September 6 2011, Luisi, who has been slowly working his way up in the Met’s hierarchy, was announced as its Principal conductor, a posting which also involved picking up conducting commitments of the departing James Levine, who was too unwell to honour his last appointments. To do this, Luisi had to break contracts with the Operas of Rome and Genova. There was a panic in Rome.

But the story has a happy ending. The Rome Opera were able to procure the services of Stefan Soltesz, the Hungarian who has conducted the opera many times in Vienna. I doubt if Luisi could have brought the vitality and seriousness to the work which Soltesz brought. He was more considerate to his singers than Strauss allows, but for this many of us in his audience, not to mention the singers, were grateful. The whole delivery was enthralling and addictive, just the ticket for such a declared neurotic opera. What is more, space in the orchestra pit and money restrictions imposed limits on the composer’s declared requirements. There were six cellos instead of the requested twelve, twelve violas instead of Strauss’s requirement of eighteen, and so forth. This augmented orchestra warmed to their maestro who was given the complete rehearsal schedule. Detail was for the most part, beautifully attended to.

In more than half a century of seeing performances at the Rome Opera I cannot recall one more impressive than this.

Jack Buckley