Is it possible for a performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra to be exciting without an exciting Elektra? It of course depends on your priorities and expectations, which will ultimately determine whether such a performance, as preserved on this DVD from Baden-Baden is for you.
Linda Watson’s first assumption of the punishing role of Elektra (she learned it only eight weeks prior to this production) is admirable for her scrupulous musicianship, command of the text, and the regality she brings to the role.
In collaboration with Christian Thielemann, she finds many phrases on which to lavish unusually refined lyric beauty, in a work often given heavy-handed treatment. It seems, however, as though this lyrical approach is not necessarily a choice for Watson, who is unable to approach any note above the staff with true dramatic attack, always opting for a hesitant scoop which inevitably results in an unfocused, wobbly sound.
This hesitancy makes it quite obvious that she is thinking very hard about her singing and never truly inhabits the character fully, opting for restraint where the score calls for malevolent abandon. Thankfully, the rest of her mature, sizeable voice is largely secure and not unlovely, though it is not for those prone to motion sickness.
The rest of the cast ranges from satisfactory to very good. The Chrysothemis, Manuela Uhl, has a sympathetic stage presence but her shrill upper register often grates. Jane Henschel really sings Klytamnestra, and by virtue of her wide palette of vocal expression is able to portray her shifting moods, from desperate and paranoid to venomous and cruel more fully than the typical aged diva often cast in this part. There is still more than a fair bit of campy mugging, but it does not come across as intended to distract from sub-par singing. Albert Dohmen sings Orest with grave authority, deploying his charcoal bass-baritone with chilling urgency and tenderness in his reunion with his sister. René Kollo makes a cameo as a rather bumbling, elderly Aegisth.
Herbert Wernicke’s straightforward staging, while not revelatory or especially creative, is nonetheless effective. The production, dominated by sharp angles and stark colors, is spare and simple. This aesthetic extends to the largely static blocking. A large wall which rotates on its diagonal axis looms ominously over the stage, at times opening to reveal a large freestanding staircase, and closing to claustrophobically restrict the action to the apron. The limited interaction and large distances between the characters highlights their isolation, and the lack of eye contact between them gives a sense that even in dialogue they are not really communicating at all.
The carefully choreographed progression of movement and physical contact helps to structure Strauss’s long scenes, so that when there is a burst of action it is all the more climactic—a release of the static tension that had built up. Wernicke makes a huge mistake, however, in ending the opera with Elektra slinking off the stage after having impaled herself with the axe. We are left with a meaningless, uninteresting stage picture of Orest standing on the staircase with one arm outstretched and Chrysothemis at his feet, looking as though she has just taken a hit of some really strong stuff. Were something more compelling offered, the choice not to have Elektra onstage at the climactic ending of Elektra might have seemed justified. (It should be noted that Wernicke is dead and that it has been left up to Bettina Goschl to ostensibly reproduce his wishes faithfully.)
The glory of this performance is Thielemann’s vivid, characterful account of Strauss’s score, full of expressive detail and ethereal beauty. His lightness of touch and precision convey its relentlessness through clarity and vitality of articulation, rather than unremitting bombast. This serves his thrillingly-paced and idiosyncratic reading of the finale especially well. From a purely orchestral standpoint, it is worth acquiring just to hear the details and inner harmonies he is able to tease out of the Munich Philharmonic, thanks to his ear for balance and transparency.
Some may feel his approach too symphonic, yet there is no lack of vivid theatricality, most notably in his spiky treatment of the irascible Elektra theme which pierces the score throughout. The level of excitement generated by the orchestra is rarely matched by the vocalism, and those expecting to hear the intensity of a Nilsson, Jones, or Behrens will be sorely disappointed. For some, at least, Thielemann’s individual, polished, and thrilling conducting will be reason enough to acquire this DVD right away.