Elektra: A Production Strauss Himself Would Love

GermanyGermany Strauss: Elektra, Staatskapelle Dresden, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor, Christian Thielemann (conductor), Berlin Philarmonie, 28.1.2014 (2014).


Concert version

Elektra: Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis: Anna Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra: Waltraud Meier
Orest: René Pape
Aegisth: Frank Van Aken
Pfleger:  Peter Lobert
Vertraute: Romy Petrick
Schleppträgerin: Christiane Hossfeld
Junger Diener: Simeon Esper
Alte Diener: Matthias Henneberg
Aufseherin: Nadine Secunde
Erste Magd: Constance Heller
Zweite Magd: Gala El Hadidi
Dritte Magd: Simone Schröder
Vierte Magd: Rachel Willis-Sorensen
Fünfte Magd: Nadja Mchantaff


The special relationship between Dresden and Richard Strauss is well known – several of his operas were premiered in the Florence of the North. No wonder that in the commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, Dresden has taken the lead with some exceptional performances of Elektra: four in Dresden and an additional one in concert form in Berlin. The result has been memorable and will rest for a long time in the audience’s memory. I am convinced that even Richard Strauss himself would have been impressed with the result.

Christian Thielemann led the musical forces, and what he gave us exceeded even the great expectations I had. It was as if I had discovered this opera for the first time, so exquisite was Mr. Thielemann’s reading. His conducting was far from the noisy Elektras we so often hear, offering instead an intimate, lyrical, amost chamber music version, though it may sound out of place to talk of chamber music with a splendid orchestra of 100 musicians. This was a fantastic Elektra, exciting like no other I have ever attended. Thielemann was not overly active on the podium, as so often happens with some of his colleagues, but rather the opposite; instead of jumps and fuss, he used his face and that left hand that God gave him to work wonders, and I enjoyed the concert enormously. If I were to highlight something (which is somewhat unfair in so a splendid a version), it  would be Orest’s recognition by Elektra, which was  sublime in lyricism and emotion. What a  difference between this Elektra and last June’s Rosenkavalier in Dresden. If then Mr. Thielemann’s face was sullen and serious, this time he showed joy and satisfaction at the end of the concert. Rounding out the performance was a spectacular Staatskapelle Dresden, one of the very best orchestras nowadays in any concert hall or opera house.

In my opinion the only mistake that Mr. Thielemann made was to place the singers behind the orchestra; the voices did not reach the audience with enough volume despite the extraordinary acoustics of the Philharmonie. The only exception was Elektra herself, whose voice could have got through even bigger orchestral barriers. When at the final scene Mr. Thielemann allowed Chrysothemis and Elektra to sing in front of the orchestra, we were able to perfectly capture the difference.

Elektra was German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, in my opinion today’s leading interpreter of the role. Her vocal power and dramatic intensity place her ahead of any of her colleagues as far Elektra goes. Some people may not agree, but only if they have not heard Ms. Herlitzius in this concert or last summer in her exceptional Elektra at Aix-en-Provence.

Anne Schwanewilms was Chrysothemis with a voice well suited to the character, but she suffered from her location behind the orchestra. I was not convinced by her interpretation which seemed more Marschallin than Elektra’s sister. She  was rather cold and distant and that’s not the concept that I have of Chrysothemis, surely the most dreamy and romantic character in the opera.

Klytämnestra is written for a contralto and Waltraud Meier is not and never has been one. Rather, she is what one might call a falcon, but her artistry is beyond any possible discussion, and her interpretation of the role was fully convincing.

As if this were not enough, René Pape as Orest was a luxury. Vocally, he is in a splendid moment and his interpretation and diction were a real treat. Aegisthus was played by Frank Van Aken, a serviceable interpreter of the character.

The secondary  characters were wonderful, especially the five maids, all of whom are regular protagonists in other operas at the Semperoper. Among the maids I was much impressed by the fourth maid, Rachel Willis-Sorensen, who could have done a magnificent Chrysothemis. Nadja  Mchantaff as the fifth maid also left a good impression. The others were noteworthy: Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi and Simone Schröder. Veteran Nadine Secunde was a good Aufseherin. The female characters were completed by Romy Petrick (Vertraute) and soprano Christiane Hossfeld (Schleppträgerin). There  were also good performances from the male side.

The Philharmonie was at about 90% of capacity, probably due to the high price of tickets. The audience was enthusiastic after a few seconds of truly movng silence. The biggest ovations and cheers were for Thielemann, Staatskapelle Dresden and Herlitzius: thirteen minutes of applause in all.

 José Mª Irurzun