Saturday, October 23, 2010

Twisted Sister

Sam Shirakawa attended the premiere of a new production of Elektra in Cologne:

ELEKTRA [New Production]
Premiere: 17 October 2010

© Klaus Lefebvre
Should a woman’s staging of Richard Strauss’ unhappy family drama Elektra be somehow different from a male director’s point of view? Maybe, maybe not. But Gabriele Rech’s new production for Oper Köln is certainly remarkable for the visual violence she interpolates. Aegisthus is dispatched in full view of the audience, Klytemnestra’s ladies-in-waiting are doomed to have their throats slashed. Sundry other servants are cut down in similar fashion. Hamlet dumps far fewer corpses on the stage at the final curtain.

The arguably gratuitous violence Frau Rech brings to Hugo von Hoffmannstahl’s drama, is also noteworthy for its selectivity. Klytemnästra’s murder, for example, is kept off-stage in accordance with the stage instructions. Only at the curtain calls, do we see bloodstains on her slip. And Elektra, of all death-wishers, manages to survive the bloodbath, although she takes a token bath in blood on the final C-Major chord. Girls Rule?

While all this mayhem is taking place, everybody except Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra appears somewhat impassive. Elektra neither dances herself into a frenzy nor collapses at the finale; Orest maunders from one side of the stage to the other like a bewildered tourist, before executing his duty with robotic mien.

Strange. In all the productions of Elektra I’ve witnessed to date, anger pustulates remorselessly in every vocal line. In Rech’s view, though, lancing the pustules only deepens the well of unremitting psychic pain into which the gods have plunged Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s House of Atreus.

British soprano Catherine Foster, fresh from her success as Brünnhilde with Oper Köln’s performances of The Ring at the Shanghai Expo, shows no signs of wear, as she presents what is the most lyrical portrayal of the Twisted Sister I have heard to date. I’m not used to such lachrymose delivery from the opera’s eponym, but it’s fascinating to hear how Foster makes it work.

Dalia Schaechter as Klytämnestra strove effectively to gain her estranged daughter's confidence under the wit-scrambling burdens of bad conscience and bum medicine. Samuel Youn appears to be going places in the opera world, even though the blocking in this production left him with few places to go. Orest may not be best suited to the brass-plated timbre of his sonorous voice, but he is a thrill to hear no matter what he’s singing.

The major thrill of the assembled cast, though, is Edith Haller as Chrysothemis. Between scurrying on and off stage as though she keeps forgetting to get something at the supermarket, she stops long enough to reveal a glorious upper and middle register gratifyingly reminiscent of pre-wobble Gwyneth Jones. In fact, the physical resemblence between Haller and the hochdramatische diva of yesteryear is uncanny.

Catherine Foster (Elektra), Edith Haller (Chrysothemis)  © Klaus Lefebvre

Thrilling may not be the best way to describe any portrayal of Aegisth, but it was satisfying to have veteran Rene Kollo do a turn. Age may have widened his vibrato, but it has not withered his volume.

Markus Stenz inspired the Gürzenich Orchestra to some breathtaking heights. If I get a chance, I’ll return just to hear this marvelous ensemble again, polishing off Strauss’ miraculous score in a manner characteristic of great German orchestras.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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