Richard Strauss' one-act, modernist opera Elektra premiered in 1909 in Dresden, but it is really a Viennese work, its story drawing on the Zeitgeist of a volatile fin de siecle Vienna and on Freudian case histories for its atmosphere, symptomology and psycho-dramatic contours. Hugo von Hofinannsthal's text is a tale of revenge, a retelling of the ancient Orestes legend that focuses on Orestes' sister Electra and the twisted and ultimately fatal family romance that arises out of the murder of their father King Agamemnon by their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The psychological and emotional intensity of the story has a poignant analogue in Strauss' vividly colorful orchestration and restless, hypet-thromatic musical language that stretches law 19[th] century harmony n) the breaking point and underscores the grinding mental anguish of Electra as she struggles with duty, memory, degradation and alienation.
This DVD features a live performance of Elektra, recorded At the Zurich Opera [louse in 2005. The staging and design are suitably modern, with the characters in contemporary dress and the stage itself a seeming simulacrum of a mental institution, with its looming walls and rows of padded doors. Perhaps most striking is the lumpy, undulant stage floor, resembling a rolling sea and serving as a metaphor for the unstable minds of the characters, and perhaps too the decidedly uneven moral field of the opera. Indeed. Elektra has long been reggarded a work steeped in lurid, eroticized violence, and this production certainly tries to move this to the fore: the palace of Agamemnon becomes a shrine to decadence, with languid and lascivious cross-dressing servants, a whip-wielding matron, Brazilian carnival dancers and a wild, nude bacchanalia, through which the usurper Aegisthus struts, carrying a pistol and wearing a dressing gown and gaudy jewelry, like a bloated Hugh Hefner-turned mafia don.
Electra herself, played by Eva Johansson, appears as a "young punk," dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants. Electra is clearly not part of. the decadent tumult of the palace, and Johansson plays the role with wily detachment, one shaky step removed from the fragile foundations of her family and her world as they tremble and ultimately collapse. Clytemnestra, played by Marjana Lipovsek, is appropriately monstrous: she is by turns pathetic, grotesque, tormented and depraved. Static staging--to scene changes, very few lighting changes--helps to magnify the opera's suffocating sense of claustrophobia: in Elektra, the characters are trapped, frozen in place by trauma and misdeed, and destined for tragedy. Indeed, the director underscores this by essentially forgoing Electra's famous Totentanz at the end of the work; instead of dying, she rises to her feet, and stands impassively in profile, turning the opera into a pointless circular journey, as she reas-stunes the pose in which she first appeared when the curtain rose.
This stasis becomes rather boring, unfortunately. Elektra is essentially a monodrama--all of the other characters are secondary--and virtually all of the action is psychological and so internal. Internal action is not visually interesting, and needs to be counterpoised with creative and dynamic staging. Lighting effects are few and far between; the actors' blocking and gestural language is stiff and uninspired (johansson's manically bug-eyed Electra gets tiresome pretty quickly); and the only real dynamism comes from the intermittent crowd scenes, as the palace servants frenetically criss-cross the stage, rushing in and out of the padded doors. The casting, too, is problematic: Orestes, played by Alfred Muff, looks like 'Electra's grandfather, not her brother; and Johansson is far too hale and stout to be fully convincing as the fragile, ill, deprived young woman--ha blackened corpse among the living"--called for in the libretto. The singing is exceptional, the orchestra is very strong, and the sound quality of the disc is very good. In the end, it is Strauss' music that redeems this production's staging, casting and design flaws: its striking originality, richness and sheer vivacity place it among the best dramatic music of the early twentieth century.
University. Alberta, Augustana Campus