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Semperoper Dresden

In Review Elektra lg 414
Family portrait: Herlitzius and Meier in Dresden's Elektra
© Matthias Creutziger 2014

As part of its celebration of Richard Strauss's 150th anniversary, Dresden's Semperoper retired its legendary Ruth Berghaus production of Elektra in favor of a new take by theater director Barbara Frey, which had its premiere on January 19. Frey, whose opera experience includes only two previous productions, intended her Elektra staging to explore the familial relationships in the opera as they relate to the trauma of war — at least that was her goal, according to her program notes. Frey's intention hardly made itself apparent in the characters' static interactions within a slightly dismantled, bare wood courtroom, designed by Muriel Gerstner. While Frey's understated direction rightly allowed the music to take the foreground, the horrific sense of suspense so crucial to the drama was lacking. Evelyn Herlitzius's Elektra, dressed by Bettina Walter in a gown that seemed caught somewhere between flapper and cavewoman, broke out into dance not after Orest's murderous revenge — as per Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto — but in her own early soliloquy reliving Agamemnon's death and imagining revenge. When Anne Schwanewilms's Chrysothemis spoke to her sister about escaping and having children, she did so from a chair facing the audience, because Elektra had already collapsed onto a pile of floor tiles — foreshadowing her final pose hanging over the orchestra pit.

More effective were the scenes between Herlitzius and the Klytämnestra of Waltraud Meier, which offered a clearly defined portrayal of repressed guilt and modern bourgeois disillusion. Frey also created a tender moment at the reunion of Orest and Elektra, allowing the siblings to sing directly to one another and exchange an appropriately incestuous kiss — although the appearance of two children as silent doppelgängers added little depth. Chrysothemis's final appearance, in a wedding gown, as she cried out to Orest, provided a surreal but welcome counterweight to the general inertia of the production. 

With some of today's finest Strauss singers onstage, the Semperoper lived up to its heritage as the composer's favored theater. Herlitzius, despite an often strident and at times shrieking upper range, has the vocal stamina and dramatic force of a true Elektra. The edge to her timbre even lent dramatic depth to her delivery as she plunged herself, both mentally and physically, into the character's mania. Meier was supreme in the role of Klytämnestra, conveying her flawed humanity with a burnished tone and intimate delivery that nevertheless sailed above the orchestra. As Chrysothemis, Schwanewilms at first struggled with volume, particularly in the upper range, but her initially rigid characterization warmed up to a full-blooded performance in the crucial exchanges of the final scenes. René Pape brought his mellifluous bass, crisp diction and unaffected presence to the role of Orest, offering an unembellished portrayal in keeping with the shadow-like characterization in the Strauss–Hofmannsthal libretto. Tenor Frank van Aken gave a fine performance as Klytämnestra's paramour, Aegisth. The Staatskapelle Dresden, under music director Christian Thielemann, proved a star in its own right, compensating for lost tension onstage by recreating the violent passion of Strauss's score with rich strings, chiseled woodwinds and exquisitely intoned brass that echoed more than a century of tradition. spacer 


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