Warlikowski’s landmark Elektra at the Salzburg Festival returns to celebrate its 100+1 anniversary  

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival 2021 [2] – Strauss, Elektra: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 28.8.2021 (ALL)

Salzburg Festival’s Elektra: Ausrine Stundyte (Elektra, bottom right) © Bernd Uhlig

Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes – Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Choreography – Claude Bardouil
Videos – Kamil Polak
Lighting – Felice Ross
Dramaturgy – Christian Longchamp
Chorusmaster – Huw Rhys James

Elektra – Ausrine Stundyte
Chrysotemis – Asmik Grigorian
Klytämnestra – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Orest – Christopher Maltman
Aegisth – Michael Laurenz
Orest’s Tutor – Peter Kellner
The Trainbearer – Verity Wingate
The Confidante – Evgenia Asanova
A Young Servant – Matthäus Schmidlechner
An old Servant – Jens Larsen
The Overseer – Sinéad Campbell-Wallace
First Maidservant – Monika Bohinec
Second Maidservant – Noa Beinart
Third Maidservant – Deniz Uzun
Fourth Maidservant – Regine Hangler
Fifth Maidservant – Christina Gansch

Much was said last year on the feat that represented running the Salzburg Festival under strict Covid sanitary precautions. Programmes had to be re-designed in haste. Productions had to be cancelled. Teams had to be assembled at the latest minute. Performances could be held, but only under rigorous conditions. The Festival used modern media to reach out viewers who could not visit the city.

As that was the Salzburg Festival’s centenary, management ensured they could present an opera by both Mozart and Strauss. Elektra, with its single act, was an ideal candidate but artistic creativity had to be found to prepare a version of Così fan tutte with cuts so as not to have any intervals. Cosi was then a given a minimalist staging that was focused and efficient, with a balanced cast of convincing singers. In the pit, Joana Mallwitz was the first woman to conduct an opera in Salzburg (beating Bayreuth by one year …) and gave a lively reading with genuine care for supporting the stage.

But this Così, apart from the modern costumes, was fairly traditional, whereas the team of Krzysztof Warlikowski and Franz Welser-Möst made us completely rediscover and rethink Strauss’s Elektra.

The production started with Klytämnestra justifying the killing of Agamemnon to extract revenge from the murder of Iphigenie, her forced, defiant tones setting the stage for the later encounter with Elektra. Chrysotemis was no longer a passive and pale character. She was the one, above all others, who displayed a genuine a sense of purpose (and I do not want to give away too many theatrical surprises). As Elektra correctly says it: ‘She is strong’ and proved to be. Elektra was not a ragged, disheveled figure but was an equal to her sister. What was highlighted was a deep insecurity, culminating with her inability to give the axe to Orest. As is underlined in the text, the long-awaited brother is not a savior but an adolescent who has aged too fast and who remains a weak, lost child. In the end, he is unable to bear all the display of violence and revenge and flees the scene in a state of shock while (videos of) blood starts dripping from the walls, giving a new meaning to Chrysotemis’s final reaching out to him. This was both theatrical and profoundly intelligent.

In the dreadfully difficult title role, Ausrine Stundyte did full justice to the part. There were understandable moments where the top of the voice was under pressure and lost some colour. She was, however, at her best in the recognition scene, which had a deeply moving line. Asmik Grigorian had everything. She was so convincing as an actress. While she had ‘all the notes’, they were also sung with complete abandon. Along with her debut in Bayreuth as Senta, she is definitely the singer of the moment. As a singer, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner made great use of the words of Klytämnestra’s part but surprised us with her strong reading of the spoken text at the beginning. Christopher Maltman’s antihero Orest and Michael Laurenz’s Aegisth both gave strong performances. Minor roles were on the whole well cast but a few of the Maids at the beginning had some unexpected difficulties, reminding us that singers are not machines and that the weather had turned somewhat cold and dank.

Under Franz Welser-Möst, the Vienna Philharmonic outdid themselves. The playing had colour, power, intensity and also lucidity. The Austrian conductor knew when he had to support the singers but also when he could unleash the forces in the pit. The orchestral passage at the end of the confrontation between Klytämnestra and Elektra was glorious and the paroxysmic ending mesmerising.

The audience, masked and in a full house, was silent, concentrated and at the final curtain erupted in applause. It was clear for all of us that this had been a special evening. This was the ideal performance to celebrate the Salzburg Festival’s 101st anniversary.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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