Tribuna Musical: “Elektra”, the edge of the abyss

Tribuna Musical: miércoles, noviembre 12, 2014
“Elektra”, the edge of the abyss
Some scores of the Twentieth Century represent the very limit of a long tradition or the irruption of a new style. On this second category, suffice it to mention Stravinsky´s “Rite of Spring”, where for the first time in Occidental music the basic parameter is rhythm. Richard Strauss´ “Elektra” (1909) is the prime example of the first category: although the composer had been at certain moments of his symphonic poems (the best in history) close to the complete dissolution of tonality, the feeling of being at the very edge of the abyss is paramount in his greatest opera.

            Of course, “Elektra” is a fantastic achievement because it is an ideal blend with one of the greatest librettos ever penned: the transformation by Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal of Sophocles´ seminal tragedy into a Freudian case of sexual obsession and vengeance.  The Elektra complex is the counterpart of the Oedipus complex, and the terms have stayed up to present times as synonymous of incestuous love.

            There is also the tremendous pulse of death in this work: the word “blood” pervades it. In few operas is the Eros-Thanatos syndrome so strong.  The tension almost always seems ready to tear everything apart. The few moments of release come from Elektra´s sister Chrysothemis, who wants to lead a normal life.

            The other great part is Klytämnestra, their mother, present in only one scene, but it is a crucial one, harmonically the closest to atonality and dramatically almost unbearable. For we are immersed in Mycenaean Greece just after Troy´s war, very far from the Arcadic feeling of later centuries. Klytämnestra is a monster but a fascinating one.

            Orest comes late in the game: the moving Recognition Scene, just before he executes the vengeance killing his mother and her husband Aegisth. And there is a great character that never appears but is essential: Agamemnon, the slaughtered father.

            Generally the Colón has tried to put on Strauss operas with quality. “Elektra” already has a powerful tradition at the Colón, ever since Strauss himself leading the Vienna Philharmonic premièred it in 1923. As José Luis Sáenz points out in his useful article, our theatre has punctually revived it every decade up to now.

            I was twelve in 1951 when I heard Christel Goltz on the radio (conductor Böhm): even in puberty this opera made a very deep impression on me. Later on I saw Goltz in Vienna (1961), Inge Borkh in Munich (1964), and Nilsson in Vienna (1969). Here I heard Gladys Kuchta in 1966, the splendid Daniza Mastilovic in 1975. I was traveling when during Renán´s time a marvelous threesome was assembled in 1995: Hildegard Behrens, Rysanek as Klytämnestra and Deborah Voigt as Chrysothemis; but fortunately I saw a DVD of it. Finally, the rather poor 2007 revival at the Coliseo.

            Well, the 2014 presentation was the best thing of the season. The women were on a high level and had already made their mark here: Linda Watson as Brünnhilde  and both Iris Vermillion and Manuela Uhl in that other Straussian masterpiece, “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.  Watson has  vital qualities: stamina (it´s the most trying role in the whole repertoire), firm highs, volume, ability to sing softly and fully, and complete command of the words; on the debit side: she doesn´t dance, the sort of clumsy but meaningful dance indicated by Hoffmannsthal; and her timbre lacks beauty when pressed.

            Manuela Uhl (the luminous Empress in “Die Frau ohne Schatten”) as Chrysothemis was warm and beautiful, with splendid highs and expansive phrasing,  though sometimes her lower range was weak. Iris Vermillion was so perfect as the Amme (Wet-Nurse) in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” that I expected a lot from her, but her Klytämnestra, though certainly quite good, didn´t have the same impact: she didn´t look or sound degraded enough, and her presence was too young, although her command of the music was undeniable.

            Hernán Iturralde has the right type of baritone for Orest: compact, dark, of good volume; he should have worn a wig, he looked too elderly. Enrique Folger did well in the short and ungrateful part of Aegisth. The Five Maids weren´t satisfactory except the Fifth, well sung by Marisa Pavón. Of the bit parts I single out the fresh new voice of Eduardo Bosio as Young Servant.

            I was very impressed by the huge orchestra led by Roberto Paternostro, absolutely basic for a fine “Elektra”. The professional firmness of everyone, the Expressionist response to the innumerable accents, the rapport with the stage, the impeccable tempi, were necessary for the undoubted success of this “Elektra”.

              A minimalist approach to the staging works well in this case. Pedro Pablo García Caffi was the producer as well as the stage and lighting designer, whilst the costumes were designed by Alejandra Espector. Perhaps it was wise that he didn´t take a bow at the end for there´s turmoil in the orchestra: just before the beginning all the players showed placards in the pit demanding better salaries ( as you know, he is the Colón´s Director). But fair is fair, and he did a good job though with some blemishes.

            He opted for several big truncated cones which give a Mycenean impression, the handling of the singers was generally correct except in the Aegisth scene, some lighting effects were good and others seemed too modern.  Stairs were missing as well as a cyclopean wall. The clothing by Espector was adequate except perhaps Klytämnestra´s.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Tribuna Musical: “Elektra”, the edge of the abyss

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