von Dohnányi, Christoph


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.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.