Muff, Alfred


ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Opernhaus Zürich, 2005 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Martin Kušej, Eva Johansson, Marjana Lipovšek, Melanie Diener, Rudolf Schasching, Alfred Muff, Renhard Mayr, Cassandra McConnell, Christine Zoller, Andreas Winkler, Morgan Moody, Margaret Chalker | Arthaus Musik

I don’t know if Electra’s age is recorded in Sophocles’ account of ancient Greek mythology that forms the basis for the play and the libretto that Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote for Richard Strauss’ one-act opera, but in Martin Kušej’s 2005 stage production of Elektra for the Zurich Opera, at the time when she is plotting the death of her mother on Mycenae, Electra is a surly rich-kid teenager in a hooded top, with a shock of punkish blonde hair, who is contemptuous of the world around her and everybody in it, not least of which her parents. As far as this Electra is concerned, they can all just f-off and die. So when her sister urges her to grow up and get real, make life easier for herself otherwise her parents are going to ground her, she regards Chrysothemis as nothing more than a sell-out who has forgotten her principles and has bought into the glamour of her rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

This Electra evidently has a bit of an attitude problem, but that’s understandable even without the director’s modern interpretative touches. She has seen her father Agamemnon murdered by her own mother Clytemnestra, who has since gone on and married Aegisthus, so there’s no love lost between her and her mother and undoubtedly she nurses a deep hatred for the step-father who has taken his place, to say the least. There’s also undoubtedly considerable trauma involved in the events she has witnessed and experienced as a young child, and it’s this psychological element that is delved into deeply in Hofmannsthal’s writing, under the influence of the studies and the artwork contemporaneously being undertaken by other Viennese artists, intellectuals and philosophers around the turn of the 20th century. Richard Strauss would likewise reflect this psychological mindset in the most expressionistic and clinical musical language of Elektra that matches the traumatic experience in all its disturbing complexity.

Elektra

Electra is a victim of profound psychological damage, so when she talks about “the child who will never return… lingering there in chasms of horror”, it’s reflected in the discordant notes of the score and it’s reflected here in the stage direction where Electra buries a younger child version of herself within the dark cavern that she literally and metaphorically inhabits. Mixed in with this trauma are also feelings of rage, obsession and a desire for vengeance, which she believes will be carried out by her brother Orestes, even though she is told that her brother is no longer alive. But she has to believe in it, as it is the only thing that keeps her going. Once those drives are sated however, she has nothing left to live for and expires in a mad dance of release.

Despite the fact then that there is not a great deal of action that takes place on the stage, there is evidently then considerable complexity in the characterisation and psychology that represents a challenge for the stage director as much as putting it across in musical terms is a tremendous challenge for the musical director and the performers. Other than the dramatic events of the conclusion however, there’s not much room left in the extraordinarily intricate and acute characterisation of Strauss’s music for any additional interpretation to be imposed on the work, but there are certainly layers of sociological and psychological relevance that can be teased out of the work and can be explored without compromising the integrity of the piece as a mythological subject.

Elektra

Not unsurprisingly, considering his treatment of the De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander as well as his particular take on Schumann’s Genoveva, Martin Kušej also sees some kind of class conflict in the make-up of Electra. Certainly, she’s the daughter of a rich, noble family, but she’s been relegated to the status of a servant, who resides in what appears to be the cavernous basement of the house that is filled with mounts of dust, among the “rabble living in a cave”, and it’s from this lowly position that she sets herself up in opposition to the bloated self-interest and corruption of the elderly elite class. Whether this is meaningful or appropriate or even relevant is a matter of interpretation, but it’s an element that is worthy of consideration, putting the ancient mythology and feelings into a modern context that one can relate to.

At the very least then, the staging of the dark cavern with mounds of dust, with doors connecting this dark underbelly to seemingly every part of the house, is visually striking but it also seems to capture the expressionistic tone of the music and the dark undercurrents that can be read in the libretto. The performances work well in conjunction with the production, hitting all the dramatic and confrontational high points with requisite force and intensity, building in pitch towards that powerful conclusion that releases the ecstasy and the disillusionment in a frenzied dance of joy and death. Whether the inclusion of Brazilian Mardi Gras dancers at that stage at that point is appropriate or not is another matter however, but it fits with the stage invasions that occur throughout, showing perhaps that the pathology is more widespread than the confines of Electra’s mind and the cavern.

All the main roles are exceptionally well sung - Eva Johansson as Elektra, Marjana Lipovšek as Clytemnestra, Melanie Diener as Chrysothemis and Alfred Muff as Orestes. Rather than consider them in terms of individual qualities, it would be better to note that they constitute a relatively strong cast who work well with each other and match the tone of the production and the score. The sound recording or mixing doesn’t always allow them to be fully audible over the orchestra playing in the first half of the recording, but the full force of the work singing and the orchestration is evident certainly by the latter half and the conclusion. The new Arthaus release would seem to be a direct port of the previously released TDK edition (the disc itself retains the TDK labelling and artwork on my copy), with PCM Stereo and DTS HD-MA 7.1 audio options. On a BD25 disc, the 1080i full-HD image quality is excellent. The disc is All Region and subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. There are no extra features other than a booklet that has an essay and synopsis.

GenovevaRobert Schumann - Genoveva

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Martin Kušej, Juliane Banse, Shawn Mathey, Martin Gantner, Cornelia Kallisch, Alfred Muff, Ruben Drole, Tomasz Slawinski, Matthew Leigh | Arthaus Musik

Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann’s only opera, was composed around the same time that Richard Wagner was working on material for Lohengrin and the Ring of the Niebelungen and it represents an interesting alternative view of how folklore, mythology and legends could be used as an expression of essential Germanic characteristics elevated through the art of the opera or music drama. Genoveva however was regarded as a failure when it was first produced, and Schumann would consequently never compose another opera, so it’s the Wagnerian model that has succeeded as the dominant influence, but Schumann’s approach would appear to be more deeply rooted in relating these characteristics elevated in mythology back down to the nature of the individual, and that consequently makes the story of Genoveva rather an interesting one.

Ostensibly, the work is an account of the medieval legend of the martyrdom of St Genevieve, the story promoting the virtues of truth and purity when Genoveva, the Countess of Brabant, is unjustly accused of infidelity, imprisoned and (in the original legend) executed only for her innocence later to be discovered. Schumann’s approach to the work is rather more complicated in its focus and in its unconventional depiction of the varied characters. In the story, Genoveva rejects the advances of her head servant Golo while her husband Siegfried is away fighting in Charles Martel’s crusade against the Saracen army of Abdur Rahman that is threatening to invade Europe. Consumed by desire for the Count’s wife and smarting from her rejection, Golo conspires to have Genoveva denounced for adultery by arranging for another servant, an old man, Drago, to be found in her bedroom. While one should expect sympathy to lie with the unjustly maligned Genoveva and with the husband whose trust has been abused by his servant, a large part of the opera is given over to consideration of the “lower orders”, giving depth to Golo, Margaretha and Drago, and it’s there that we find, perhaps, more interesting facets of human nature and German character.

Genoveva

That approach is emphasised very much in Martin Kušej’s staging of the rarely performed work for the Zurich Opernhaus in 2008. As with his De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander, and perhaps even in his Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka, there’s a sense of class conflict within the consuming passions that is emphasised also in Kušej’s Genoveva. Using a boxed-in set of pure white walls (although they don’t stay that way for long), the set design bears little resemblance to the medieval period setting of the work. Within this space, the four figures of the central drama are often present, even if they aren’t required to be on the stage. In the case of Siegfried, for example, even though we know he’s gone to fight in the crusades in Act II, he’s physically still present there on the stage while the drama unfolds between Golo and Genoveva, even if he doesn’t take part in the action. It’s a rather avant-garde Brechtian theatrical device, but it serves to keep the focus on the drama and the overheated emotions between each of the characters – other action usually takes place off to the sides of the boxed area – showing that the influence or “presence” of the key players is important, even if they aren’t actually there.

Kušej also makes use of his now trademark shock tactics of minor nudity and plenty of blood also to tremendous effect. Distancing techniques – the characters laughing uncontrollably during the overture, squashing invisible insects and wrestling with a slippery dead fish – are used to suggest that the libretto shouldn’t be taken entirely literally when Siegfried refers to Genoveva as “a woman of true German stock”, while she for her part observes that it’s “a blessing to be the wife of a hero”, and Schumann’s score would tend to suggest that this indeed shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. While such aspirations are noble, and one would be accustomed to accepting them as such in a Wagner opera, there are characters of lower orders present in Schumann’s opera with genuine grievances about their treatment and station, even if their means of wresting back some kind of justice can only be achieved through violence and subversion. Without taking anything away from the noble characteristics of Genoveva then (Siegfried is shown in a less heroic light by Schumann and certainly in Kušej’s staging, enjoying the pleasures of the witch Margaretha at the opening of Act III), the suggestion is perhaps that these figures have a voice that needs to be heard if such actions are to be avoided.

Genoveva

Kušej accordingly sets the opera in Schumann’s own period to reflect the social and political climate as he would have known it around 1848. Whether you buy into the devices and techniques employed by the director, the staging nonetheless has a striking, distinctive look that commands attention where the drama as it is outlined in the libretto ordinarily might not. Genoveva is not considered to be a dramatically strong work, and the criticism is often levelled against it that it’s a failed work because of this, so it’s even more to the credit of Kušej’s staging that it better reveals the distinctions of the characterisation that are clearly there. It is perhaps true that, musically at least, Schumann doesn’t manage to find a distinct voice for each of the characters – musically, it’s restrained, with few grand gestures and only some gentle choruses to punctuate the long monologues – but considerable impact can be drawn from the subject with commitment from the performers and a conductor who is keen to get to the heart of an important but underrated work in the history of German opera.

Fortunately, it has that not only with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and a fine performance of the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, but in the singing of an exceptionally fine and committed cast who are often called upon to sing in difficult positions and occasionally perform somewhat undignified or just plain bizarre actions. Juliane Banse in particular is outstanding in the rather demanding role of Genoveva, but Shawn Mathey is a committed Golo and Martin Gantner a fine Siegfried. Cornelia Kallish and Alfred Muff also make a strong impression in the roles of Margaretha and Drago. This is far from bel canto however, and if the singing appears unexceptional in some parts, the acting and commitment to the roles proves just as important. The booklet included with the BD includes a fine thought-provoking essay on the work by Ronny Dietrich, the principal dramatic advisor of the Zurich Opera. It may take some persuading to accept Kušej’s belief that Golo is the central figure of the work and not Genoveva, but it is worth considering that the composer would have probably identified with Golo in his troubled relationship with Clara Schumann’s father.

The quality of the Blu-ray presentation itself is good, and the image is relatively clear. Some minor blue-edges and a little bit of vertical shimmer could have been avoided with a BD50 disc instead of a BD25 for the two-and-a-half-hour opera. It in no way however detracts from the overall quality or sharpness of the image or the fine high quality audio tracks in DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 and PCM 2.0, where there is only a slight dullness in the voices at times due to the boxed-in stage set.