GermanyRichard Strauss: Elektra, Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra and Chorus, Asher Fisch (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich, 16.7.2015 (JMI)
Elektra: Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis: Adrienne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra: Waltraud Meier
Orest: Günther Groissböck
Production: Bayerische Staatssoper
Direction: Herbert Wernicke (original)
Sets, Costumes and Lighting: Herbert Wernicke
A performance of Elektra always holds a special appeal for the opera lover, and even more so when there is a remarkable cast and a respected conductor. It is not surprising that expectations in Munich ran high: the three main singers, Evelyn Herlitzius, Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier, can be considered as references nowadays in their respective roles. This trio of exceptional singers could be seen last year at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, where they had a huge success. The performance in Munich was not as splendid as in the French city, but the reason lies with the production and musical direction and not with the singers. Herbert Wernicke is not Patrice Chereau, and Asher Fisch is not Esa-Pekka Salonen. One could also make a comparison to the Elektras in Dresden and Berlin in January 2014, where the cast was almost the same (with Anne Schwanewilms instead of Adrienne Pieczonka), and the conductor was a fabulous Christian Thielemann.
This house production by Herbert Wernicke was premiered in 1997, and I’ve had the opportunity to see it in previous years. I find it unconvincing, more like an opera in concert than a true stage production. The set consists of a large inclined turntable that closes off the stage, so the action always takes place at the front of it. There is a metal staircase to the left that leads to a proscenium box where Orestes will appear, and a kind of rock to the right, where Elektra can be seen throughout the opera. The costumes are quite conventional: Elektra in a dark robe, Chrysothemis in white and Klytämnestra in red, while Orestes wears a modern suit. The lighting holds some interest. Although it is not mentioned in the program credits, I expect that the stage direction was once again done by Bettina Göschl. Overall, it’s just too static a production.
In my many years of attending performances of Elektra, I’ve come to the conclusion that this opera, as do very few, requires an exceptional conductor. Whenever this occurs, the result is a triumph. When the conductor is not exceptional, things do not work as well, and we usually have to suffer through a festival of decibels. This is what happened here. Elektra has some spectacular moments of lyricism, in particular the recognition of Orestes by Elektra, but, as often happens, they went unnoticed. Needless to say, the excess noise contributed nothing to the final result and clearly hurt the singers, especially Klytämnestra. Asher Fisch’s conducting also had the disadvantage of preventing us from enjoying the excellent Bayerisches Staatsorchester, as we have done under Philippe Jordan.
Evelyn Herltizius was Elektra, and I’m not revealing anything new by saying that she is the definitive interpreter of the role today. She could be faulted on a few aspects, but her acting intensity, vocal power and ability to convey emotion to the public are unique. This was an Elektra to remember, as are all her Elektras.
Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka was a magnificent Chrysothemis in terms both of singing and acting. Her voice is perfect for the role, with an outstanding middle range and an exceptional homogeneity throughout the tessitura, together with great skill at communicating emotions to the audience. Both Elektra and Chrysothemis raised the bar so high that it will be very difficult for other performers to reach their level.
Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra once again proved that she belongs to the exclusive club of true artists. My only complaint is that she is not the required contralto. Obviously, you cannot sing Isolde, a character for soprano, and then Klytämnestra a few days later. She was not helped by the pit which was so noisy that her low notes were almost inaudible.
German bass Günther Groissböck was a remarkable interpreter of Orestes and a terrific addition to a trio of outstanding women. Ulrich Ress was a serviceable Aegisthus.
The supporting cast did nicely, with a group of outstanding Maids, particularly the 4th and 5th which were performed by Eri Nakamura and Golda Schultz ̶ both were a real treat. Their colleagues were Okka Von Der Demerau, Rachel Wilson and Heike Grötzinger, and the head of the maids was, as is usual here, Irmgard Vilsmaier.
Once again, it was a full house. The audience gave a triumphant welcome to the 4 main characters, especially Evelyn Herlitzius and Adrienne Pieczonka. Asher Fisch was greeted with cheers and boos.
José M. Irurzun