Patrice Chéreau Brings his Production of Elektra to Berlin

GermanyGermany Strauss, ElektraSoloists, Berlin State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Martin Wright), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Schillertheater, Berlin, 29.10.2016. (MB)

Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus.
Berlin State Opera’s Elektra (c) Monika Rittershaus.

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Adrianne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – Michael Volle
Aegisth – Stephan Rügamer
First Maid – Bonita Hyman
Second Maid, Train-bearer – Marina Prudenskaya
Third Maid – Katharina Kammerloher
Fourth Maid – Anna Samuil
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander
Overseer, Confidante – Cheryl Studer
Young Servant – Florian Hoffmann
Old Servant – Donald McIntyre
Orest’s Tutor – Franz Mazura

Patrice Chéreau (director)
Vincent Huguet, Peter McClintock (assistant directors)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Dominique Bruguière (lighting)

I was fortunate enough to see the Met broadcast of Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra in April. Conducted with white-heat intensity by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the orchestra on exceptional form, a cast headed by Nina Stemme in the title role convinced this relative sceptic concerning cinema broadcasts that the experience might, in many ways, match that of being in the theatre. I shall spare you a half-baked discourse on liveness and mediation or not; there are others who might actually have interesting things to say on the subject. Comparison, however, is inevitable. What intrigued, if disappointed me, was that, on balance, and with certain exceptions, New York came off slightly better.

As I wrote last time, poor productions, performances being another matter, of Elektra are few and far between. Set designs tend to look very similar indeed, and the work itself seems to be one of those that is less amenable, or less welcoming, to radical reinterpretation. Perhaps that in part reflects Hofmannsthal’s own particular reworking of Sophocles. What would one do? Return to a putative original? Whatever for? Nevertheless, Chéreau’s humanism, and what I was – and still am – tempted to call feminism, does offer something new and convincing for a Konzept.

It is hardly novel to consider Elektra as damaged, but here, one sees a woman – or is she a girl? – so damaged, so traumatised, that her illness almost is the story. What we see is surely real, whatever that might mean; but imagination can run alongside reality. Whether one experiences the close of the opera as catharsis is open to question, even to taste, perhaps even to one’s mood, but here there is absolutely, without question, none on stage. She participates more clearly, more directly, in Orest’s revenge than she normally would – so does his tutor, here played by Franz Mazura, well into his nineties! – and yet, in some sense, she appears almost to be a bystander. Her clumsy, shellshocked attempt to dance at the end, once again clashing with, undercutting, criticising our voyeuristic desires for enjoyment – do we shade into the realm of Lacanian jouissance? – remains a shocking thing indeed. And it focuses our attention somehow both on what she does and does not do, and upon the emptiness of Strauss’s C major conclusion.

Has she emerged in a still worse position than she was before, or has what we have witnessed made no difference at all? Is the latter perhaps just as terrifying a prospect as the latter? A clash between generations, underlined by the presence onstage of veterans such as Mazura, Donald McIntyre, Cheryl Studer, and Roberta Alexander, has briefly offered a semblance of hope, the reunion of old retainers and abused children supremely touching here. Is not the real problem that of, as it were, the post-Atreus Baby Boomers? Yes, in a way, at least for now – although let us not forget how Klytämnestra herself has suffered – but that implies no hope for the future. People so damaged as Elektra and Orest: well, forget it…

Oddly, though, I think what I saw and understood – if indeed I understood it – may well have come across a little better on screen. Chéreau was a great film-maker, of course, but he was also a great man of the theatre. The unsparing nature of HD cinema had worked to the advantage of Stemme and also Waltraud Meier. I described their performances in New York as portrayals ‘that would have been astonishing had they been actresses in a spoken drama, a spoken filmed dramas’. Not being so close had its drawbacks in this case, especially when the Klytämnestra ‘was so much more rounded than the norm, indeed so much more rounded than I have ever heard’. One always needs to see Meier as well as hear her, and perhaps even more so at this stage of her career. But Evelyn Herlitzius’s Elektra, whilst an extraordinary achievement by any standards chilled me less than Stemme’s; Herlitzius, is I suppose, a less cool – to put it mildly – performer. She gave it her all, had us utterly enthralled, but for me, at least – and I realise this is an unfair criticism – she seemed perhaps less in tune with what I imagined to be Chéreau’s conception.

Adrianne Pieczonka once again gave as fine a performance as Chysothemis as one could hope to hear. The range of vocal colours alone was enough to satisfy the price of entry. Michael Volle was at least as impressive as Orest, finer still, I think, than New York’s excellent Eric Owens (although who cares?) Volle’s way with German words is second to none; their combination with as damaged, if differently so, a personality as Elektra’s made for powerful theatre indeed. There were no weak performances; the contributions from Mazura and Alexander in particular proved deeply moving.

Had I not heard Salonen, I might have had little quibble with Daniel Barenboim’s conducting. By most standards it was excellent; the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, the occasional rough edge apart, most certainly was throughout. However, I missed a little the icy control of Salonen, perfectly complementing Stemme. Barenboim, almost always at his best in Wagner, is perhaps less of a Straussian. His gift for hearing a work as if in a single breath seemed slightly to desert him here; phrases and paragraphs were all present, though, and that whole was not so very far off. There remained a great deal to admire and to experience, and one cannot always have everything.

Mark Berry

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