An electrifying Elektra at Staatsoper Unter den Linden.
It’s six years since the Staatsoper Berlin first presented the late Patrice Cheréau’s staging of Strauss’ searing take on the warring factions in the House of Atreus. Due to a lengthy and ultimately expensive renovation of its usual home, the company was exiled to the Schiller Theater, at that time. I was there for the first night, and looking back at what I had to say, whilst musically it was outstanding, I found the staging cool – emotions kept at a distance.
How would it fare, six years later, with a predominantly new cast, in its refurbished home on the Unter den Linden? One constant from 2016 was to have been musical director Daniel Barenboim, but due to illness he had to withdraw and was replaced by the highly talented 29 year old Thomas Guggeis, whose conducting of Jenůfa had thrilled the previous evening. Elektra is a different can of worms altogether and makes even greater demands on the singers, players, and conductor. Given the circumstances, his conducting was assured, measured and, despite Strauss’ thick scoring, never overwhelmed the singers. There was a filigree lightness to those passages that required it – Klytamnestra recounting her dreams to her daughter, and later in the Recognition scene – whilst he revealed orchestral textures I’d never heard before. There was no holding back in the more explosive passages, and he was rewarded with committed and assured playing from all sections of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Quite why he was met with a handful of boos at his curtain call is anyone’s guess – opera audiences never cease to amaze me.
Only one of the principals returned – the seemingly ageless Waltraud Meier. Last time she failed to convince, as the lower lying reaches of the role somehow evaded her, but on Sunday evening she summoned up the requisite chest tones to bring the right element of depravity that the role of Klytemnestra demands, yet also managed to avoid the pitfalls of descending into caricature and grotesquery. Presented here as a proud, regal woman, still very much in her prime, it’s good to encounter a staging which treats the character seriously, rather than going for the lazy option of raddled old bag.
“How would it fare… with a predominantly new cast…”
Which leads nicely onto the production, to which I responded far more enthusiastically than before. Yes, the dumb show which proceeds the shattering opening ‘Agamenon’ motif outstays its welcome, but once past that, the staging seemed to operate on a far more emotionally charged level – Cheréau’s personenregie natural and involving. The 100 minutes flew by, and the sense of the audience hanging on every word was palpable.
Of course the success of any performance rests squarely on the shoulders of the singer in the title role. On stage for the entirety of the performance, it needs a soprano endowed with a voice capable of carrying over Strauss’ unremitting orchestral onslaught, while also being able to sing mezzo-piano where required. It’s physically demanding as well, so finding a soprano that ticks all the boxes is no mean feat. When new, Evelyn Herlitzius passed with flying colours, but this revival’s Elektra, Ricarda Merbeth, also met all these challenges head on and delivered a searing account of the title role – tireless, committed, and scrupulously-well sung. Having found her Brünnhilde in Madrid OK, but nothing special, I was blown away by her Elektra – and must say that it took me by surprise.
Another surprise was Vida Miknevičiūtè – a name new to me, but based on her thrillingly voiced Chrysothemis, a soprano I would gladly hear again. A natural stage animal, she embodied the neuroses of Elektra’s sister to a tee, while singing with unfailing bright tone – using her fast vibrato to shape Strauss’ soaring phrases skilfully. She’s a name I wager we’ll be hearing a lot more of. Gerhard Siegel’s insidious Aegisth, and René Pape’s gloriously sung, eloquent Orest completed this exceptional cast, not forgetting of course the experienced line-up of maids, watched over by Renate Behle’s nicely etched Overseer.
• Information on future performances can be found here.