Herlitzius Thrilling in Splendid Elektra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Richard Strauss: Elektra   Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Lothar Koenigs, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 28.6.15 (JR)


Klytamnestra:    Hanna Schwarz
Elektra:              Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis:    Emily Magee
Aegisth:             Michael Laurenz
Orest:                Christof Fischesser
Orest’s tutor :     Reinhard Mayr
Overseer:          Marion Ammann
1st maid:           Liliana Nikiteanu
2nd maid:          Julia Riley
3rd maid:           Irene Friedli
4th maid:           Sen Guo
5th maid:           Ivana Rusko
Confidante:       Shelley Jackson
Trainbearer:       Alexandra Tarcineru
Young servant:  Iain Milne
Old servant:      Bastian Thomas Kohl


Director:                    Martin Kusej
Assistant Director      Claudia Blersch
Sets/Lights:               Rolf Glittenberg
Costumes:                 Heidi Hackl
Lighting:                    Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus:                     Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy:              Regula Rapp, Ronny Dietrich


I just have to start with the voices, so splendid were they in this most splendid of operas. Evelyn Herlitzius has been singing the role of Elektra all round Europe, at the Aix Festival under Esa-Pekka Salonen and in Dresden under Christian Thielemann: the critics are completely unanimous; she is the best current Elektra in the business and ranks with the finest. In fact, if I think back over many decades of hearing this powerful and striking opera, she may well be the finest. She can act, she can dance (she first trained as a dancer before discovering her voice) and boy can she sing. She was mesmerizing on stage, although fairly short of stature she towered over all those around her vocally. I felt a mite sorry for Emily Magee who sang extremely well (both the forceful and lyrical passages) in a difficult part (Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis) but was overshadowed. She seemed to have half the volume of Herlitzius at times. Herlitzius was simply thrilling to listen to and chilling to watch: the howls of “bravi” at the final curtain said it all.

Christof Fischesser was a perfect Orest; his voice is deep and rich – the recognition scene was most moving. He might make a wonderful Wotan one day, but perhaps his voice is too deep for that role. Hanna Schwarz is one of the grand old dames of the opera world, an erstwhile big name amongst Wagner singers but – sadly – whilst her lower register was in good shape, her top notes just weren’t there and her diction was surprisingly muffled: she did no real damage though.

Michael Laurenz sang the role of Aegisth with some power and a Mime-like voice. The maids were a strongly-voiced bunch taken from the top echelons of Zurich Opera’s regulars.

This performance formed part of the Zurich Arts Festival, and the production is a revival from about five years ago when Eva Johansson sang the main role. Kusej’s productions are not to everyone’s liking but I’ve seen worse. The scene is a sort of dark grimy cellar with nine black doors; small open panels over the doors light up, flash or turn red to suit the action, at the end of the opera they swing open to reveal white padded backs, as in a padded cell. The maids dress in French maid’s uniforms, one with handcuffs, the overseer with a whip – it smacks of sexual fetishism, with two male transvestites thrown in as additional servants. The chorus is made to strip down to flesh-coloured underwear; one or two are bare-breasted, one totally naked. At the end, they reappear, in white as if cleansed and purified by Orest’s act of familial murder, but all having gone mad. The whole household, aptly, is portrayed as sick and depraved. At least we were spared blood and decapitations, but the whole thing was over-produced – the music comes over more effectively with fewer visual distractions.

In particular I take issue with the final scene where in place of Elektra’s dance of joy and ultimate collapse, on comes a dancing troupe from the Rio Carnival and Elektra simply lies down meekly, face down. The lights suddenly go out with thumps from the orchestra.

Which brings me to the orchestra: in the pit was German conductor Lothar Koenigs, a name better known in Cardiff (as the musical boss of Welsh National Opera) than in Zurich. He impressed throughout, volume and phrasing were spot on, the orchestra – a few minor fluffs apart – played extremely well.

I read that Anja Kampe has pulled out of this summer’s Tristan at Bayreuth after a disagreement with the Musical Director Christian Thielemann. Evelyn Herlitzius has stepped in (surprising given what must be a busy schedule) and those lucky enough to hold tickets are no doubt in for a vocal treat.

John Rhodes

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