Like Orest, I return to this house. Six months after the Met’s acclaimed new production had parterre preoccupied with all things Elektra, we have a C-Major DVD of something entirely different.
The Catalan theatrical collective La Fura dels Baus created—for “staged” does not seem appropriate—an open-air Elektra for NorrlandsOperan in August 2014. Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s opera plays out on, around and high above a 200-meters-wide stage within the vast space of a Swedish industrial park, Umestan företagspark. The maids gossip and squabble at twilight. One hundred minutes later, Agamemnon’s three surviving children watch as Klytämnestra and Aegisth, or their parade-float representations, burn against a black night sky.
Any filmed performance of Elektra will be taking place in a modern world, but in an indoor Elektra, whether it is staged in a distant period or it is updated or abstract, one’s view is focused on a world devised by the director and designer. Here, we are persistently reminded of the outside world, of life and labors all around. The video director, Robin Hofwander, tries hard to do justice to this spectacle for the small screen, and so we have many shots from high above or far away. Umestan buildings in modern architectural style are visible on the perimeter.
As I watched and listened to the maids doing their thing, I thought to myself that this performance might work in a special, individual way. The ancient story, ancient already in the time of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, could seem one unfolding eternally just a membrane away from our perception, and on a night in Umea the traces of ancient things became magically visible.
Because it is always happening, is it not? Murder, conspiracy, grief, hatred and love. Desire for revenge or escape. Upheavals of power, families in terrible conflict. The ghosts of Elektra, Chrysothemis, Klytämnestra, Orest, and even the maids whisper to us. Until they shout at us.
That fanciful musing occurred to me five minutes in. It was the last time over nearly two hours that my imagination would be engaged. I have seen my share of these Bregenz-y operatic extravaganzas, with singers wearing head microphones like Truth or Dare-era Madonna, rappelling into scenes, “interacting” with a football field’s distance between them. Sometimes the singers are good, and sometimes the directors and designers have done great work in other settings.
In my experience, however, they make for better still pictures than drama (or comedy). You pass around the photo of the giant skeleton looming over the book-shaped stage (that one was a Richard Jones Ballo in Maschera), and of course everyone says “Wow!” and talks about all the work that must have gone into it. But were the essential dramatic values at the core of the piece served? Was it theater or circus?
“Ah, das Gesicht!” spits Elektra at the first appearance of Chrysothemis. We must assume she is referring to the face of her sister’s puppet self, as both women are high in the air, fastened into chest cages on giant puppets. Certainly Elektra is too far away to see the human Chrysothemis’s face. And so it goes. Even when singers are lowered to earth for a spell, we get such blocking (devised by Carlus Padrissa) as Klytämnestra walking down the center aisle, the Fura dels Baus acrobats in tow playing her train, hollering back at her far-away daughter for a quarter of her scene.
She marches past a sea of toboggans and parkas in the audience—evidence, besides the singers’ breath, of a cold night. The mother/daughter argument progresses, and audience members must have been asked not to crane their necks from one woman to the other. The young and old male servants subsequently work the aisles.
One could be generous and say that La Fura dels Baus has challenged our notions of how Elektra should go, or can go. One must then be discerning and say that the challenge was considered and the original ruling let stand. Again and again, performers are either dwarfed or shortchanged, confrontations drained of what can make them great theater, the drama diffused rather than expanded. If this settled one thing for me, it is that La Fura dels Baus’s work does not necessarily benefit from the elimination of containing walls.
Conductor Rumon Gamba is glimpsed only on video monitors that the cameras occasionally catch, with the singers trying not to be obvious in glancing at them. Maestro Gamba leads the very good Norrlandsoperan Symphony Orchestra, located elsewhere in the Umestan complex, or a warehouse or music hall miles away, or somewhere. Wherever he is, he is the real thing. His framing is the strongest contribution musically. There is keen understanding here of Strauss’s argument, of what the details can mean not only in and of themselves but in how they are shaped and stacked, and in matters of pointing and “rhyme.”
But in the circumstances, Gamba might as well be conducting a very long Strauss tone poem that is being piped in for some vocalists to squeal over. I am sure he met and even rehearsed this cast, but the collaboration in the event is artificial and unconvincing.
We are given some singers, in an opera that goes best when it has some singers, exclamation point. Amplification notwithstanding, the voices are often covered by Gamba and orchestra. The two good-looking sisters are saddled with desiccated Medusa hair (costumes and makeup are by Clara Sullà), black tendrils for the Strong Woman and silver ones for the Girly Girl. Chrysothemis wears a stylized maid’s outfit.
Performing the title role, Ingela Brimberg has elegance of carriage, delivers words with force, and can embroider nice effects in lyrical sections. A red cord is attached to her throughout the opera. At first the viewer may suspect, this being a Fura dels Baus production after all, Elektra is going to fly through the air for the dance, but it is far worse than that: it is an umbilical cord. She cuts it with the ax at the traditional “death” moment, finally winning psychic freedom. Only then can she stand with her siblings and enjoy the parental bonfire.
This Elektra is taxed for volume, weak on the bottom, and dramatically detached. Detachment is a potentially interesting and novel quality in this role, but this is not the staging in which to explore it. She wanders about, inhabiting this world like a doll in a house that is too large.
Brimberg’s onstage sister, Susanna Levonen, makes less of the text than does Brimberg (most of it is soup), but shows more care for situation. Connecting to the other performers having been made difficult to impossible by this large-scale setup, she is visibly trying to make a connection to her character and to the distant audience.
The solid low notes and precarious top, and what struck me as an artificial brightening to the timbre, made me think—while being sure I was wrong—that she was a miscast mezzo. Now I do see Carmen and Amneris on her past schedule. Well, then. High note after effortful high note is nowhere near up to pitch.
One responds to Levonen’s sincerity, wants to like her, but tenses up until she is finished. She struggles even more than does Brimberg to produce volume, sacrificing steadiness with it. At one unfortunate point, when an entire phrase has had to be taken on faith, the English subtitle reads “Can you not hear it?”
The 63-year-old Ingrid Tobiasson performs Klytämnestra with royal cloak hanging open over an anatomically graphic nude suit. The Aegisth, Magnus Kyhle, has a matching nude suit, although his suggests that if he is in fact performing any heroic deeds in bed, they are with his tongue. Kyhle is a blameless standard Aegisth. Tobiasson has more to do, and does more with it. She is battling hoarseness and makes some harsh sounds, especially near the end of her scene, but wins points anyway in the game-old-vet style. This cannily plotted pass at a traditional decaying Klytämnestra (I risk oxymoron by describing it as a “restrained Resnikian” Klytämnestra) seems heroic in the circumstances. Hers is the performance here that will stay with me.
Veteran Swedish baritone Thomas Lander, the Orest, arrives wearing a miner’s headlamp, probably not in tribute to his countrywoman Birgit Nilsson. His singing is a balm. He has the role comfortably in his throat, and the voice is in good working order. He is the first of the principals about whom we can say both things.
He may have been helped by the gentler scoring in the meat of Orest’s scene. Signor Padrissa has directed him, I think terribly, to play a very kind, dimwitted man. It is the first time I can remember seeing an Orest and thinking the earlier reports regarding his mental condition, which Elektra rejects, were accurate. The brother/sister reunion is played for soft-soap sap.
Hofwander’s video direction rarely lets the eye settle on anything for long. He manages to cover all the sights, and there are many, but I have only the faintest idea of how this played live. The DVD includes no making-of feature, which seems a shame, as the process was probably at least as interesting as the product.
There is in the parterre archives an April 2016 piece in which I considered all of the then-extant DVDs of this opera. Most of them were very good; two were brilliant. Any one of those, I think, would bring you closer to an understanding of Elektra than this new one does. This is not to say it is worthless. It is never dull. It is inventive and it is dopey. It is singular and it is troubling. It is a mile wide and an inch deep. It fills the eye and lets the brain and heart alone. It is an Elektra unlike any Elektra that e’er I view’d.
I did not see something that impressed me as a meaningful response to Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s opera. But I did see fire pits and big puppets, someone in a bird costume coming and going from the proceedings to no apparent effect, the sexless lackeys on Klytämnestra’s float pumping their fists in time with the music like cheerleaders of Fightin’ Mycenae, a magnificent horse galloping through a creek of fake blood, and Aegisth arriving by classic red convertible. Maybe some young Swedes went home that night and said, in their language, “That car was really cool!”