Herlitzius, Soffel, Westbroek, La Monnaie/Koenigs

La Monnaie, 27 January 2010 4.5 stars

elektraGuy Joosten's current production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra is a joint venture between Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu and Brussels' La Monnaie. After premiering last year in Spain, it is presently running in La Monnaie, and will close on February 4.

The production is set roughly in the forties — the servants wear army uniforms apposite to the period, whilst the opening scene takes place in a locker room used by the serving women — but the period and context are not shoved down the audience's throats. It is rather the complex psychological compulsions of the protagonist, and the interlocking compulsions of all the main characters, that is the focus of this production.

The direction is subtle throughout, with singers allowed fluidity of movement across the bare set of Elektra's room and up and down the stairs leading to the hidden banquet hall. Characters enter and exit either through the door to that hall, or through the trapdoor in the centre of the stage. The claustrophobia of Strauss and Hofmannstal's superbly focused conception is well served by Patrick Kinmonth's sets, which suggest ancient, crumbling grandeur, just as surely as they seem proper to the period of the setting. Simple lighting effects draw out different aspects of the set as the machinations and twists in the narrative turn ever so tighter as we go on, before a big final reveal as the backdrop rises onto the hall — risky but paying off here, in my opinion — of the full carnage as described in the libretto. We are deprived of seeing Elektra's death-ravishment, but the weight of the reveal is made all the more powerful by the sudden vision of her dead in Orest's arms, glorious in the blood of her vanquished foes.

elektraWith such an understated production style as is in evidence here, the performances on stage and in the pit need to be particularly strong to convey the work's fierce tone, and to accurately describe the deliberate crescendo which arches over the whole piece. Indeed, as it turns out, the skill of the director was easily matched in the pit; Welsh National Opera's music director Lother Koenigs gave a potent account of the score that was vividly alive to the varying instrumental colours of the score. From the skeins of woodwind accompanying Klytämnestra's desperate haranguing of her daughter and her dreams, to the gleaming celesta and glockenspiel and reverberant brass interjections in the recognition scene with Orest and Elektra, to the subtle allusions to Agamemnon's motif throughout, to the shattering statements of Elektra's material just about everywhere, the orchestra and Koenigs absolutely covered themselves in glory.

The cast were likewise strong, though they were not without some weak links. The comprimario roles could have done with a little more polish; the serving ladies opening scene was lost in the acoustic wash of the hall (something the main players had little problem with), whilst Franz Mazura as Orest's orderly, though possessing the right bedraggled gait, sung with a muddled sense of line. Gerd Grochowski sung with confidence and heft in the role of Orest, but one couldn't help wanting a little more steeliness in his acting to really carry the role off.

elektraGrochowski and the other principals made for a refreshingly young front line, with even Doris Soffel's mad and bad Klytämnestra appearing more mature than aged. Soffel was an absolute pleasure, all hectoring menace and unhinged, barely concealed contempt. Her voice was at its richest in its centre range, which she invested with a real darkness of tone colour, though her many outbursts towards her top showed little struggle or strain. Soffel's physical revulsion at hearing Elektra mention Orest, and then her hooting cackles at learning (or so she thought) of her son's death, were totally convincing, and crowned a wonderful display. Eva-Maria Westbroek's voice lacked some sheen in the more emotionally balanced (though no less tormented of course) role of Chrysothemis, though her singing was very secure and affecting in the more extreme parts of her emotional register. Her thoughtful, natural sense of performance brought real sensitivity to the role, particularly at those points where her dreams of a very different life suddenly shift the emotional landscape of the opera to a more serene, poignant place that is made vivid by Strauss' lustrous harmonies swelling ever outward to climax.

At the head of the cast was the fervent Elektra of Evelyn Herlitzius, who brought a full range of tonalities and intensities to the role. From her first scene, rising up in voice and person to denounce her mother — 'his wife' — the full might of Herlitzius' wronged daughter was apparent. This Elektra was a complex creation; she was often brutal but rarely simple, cunning yes (no more so than in her compelling shift from tough to tender in her attempts to convince Chrysothemis to help her murder their mother), but rarely simple. A moving fragility, allied at once to a sturdiness and resolve all the best Elektra's should possess, came out in the recognition scene, where her murderous zeal was in part contextualised as a genuine consequence of the terrible situation she found herself in. Herlitzius never once wavered in her portrayal, and her ferocity drew the musicians in the pit into ever greater outbursts of passion and dread.

Herlitzius is the jewel in the crown of a wonderful production, one which interferes little with its top class cast and conductor. These are allowed to develop and refine their compelling performances as the increasingly startling night goes on, starting pitched immediately into the tremulous world of Elektra's troubles, and ending, gilded, in her death.

ByStephen Graham

Photos by Bernd Uhlig


elektraRelated articles:

Opera Review: Elektra at Covent Garden
Opera Review: The La Monnaie produciton of Lepage's Rake
Opera Review: Elektra at the Met
Interview: We talk to Susan Bullock about her performance in the ROH's Elektra