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A Darker Rose

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Royal Opera House, Thursday 22 December 2016)

The Marschallin – Rachel Willis-Sörensön
Octavian – Anna Stéphany
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs auf Lerchanau – Matthew Rose
Herr von Faninal – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Marianne Leitmetzerin & Noble Widow – Miranda Keys
Valzacchi –Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke
Annina – Helene Schneiderman
Italian Singer – Giorgio Berrugi
Police Commissioner – Scott Conner
Major Domo – Samuel Sakker
Hairdresser – Robert Curtis
Noble Orphans – Kathy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Andrea Hazell
Milliner – Kiera Lyness
Animal Seller – Luke Price
Innkeeper – Alasdair Elliott

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designers – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Philippe Giraudeau 

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s often tempting to dismiss Der Rosenkavalier as ‘ein farce’. Shrouded in the Eighteenth Century setting, the opera is as much about change – inevitable both in terms of relationships as well as society – as it is about love. And it takes an exceptional director to bring out its darker side.

Robert Carsen is such a director. I’ve long been a huge admirer of his works – strong on narrative but full of insight and inventiveness. His Iphigénie with Susan Graham, his Frosch in Vienna, his take on Handel’s Rinaldo and the more recent brutal and heartrending Les Carmelites are among those productions that have had the greatest personal impact.

While this Der Rosenkavalier had its lighter moments, it was Carsen’s attention to detail that made it so involving. Combined with an innate understanding of human behaviour and his intellectual capacity to tell a story, this is of the most rewarding productions I have seen.

Visually the staging was stunning. The Marschallin’s own room, with its paintings of Emperor Franz Josef and other Austrian and Habsburg aristocracy, immediately created a world of ivory tower privilege. Faninal’s palace was in rude juxtaposition. The howitzer and other weapons immediately made it clear how he had amassed his new wealth and also underlined the cruellest irony that his daughter’s future husband – at this stage Ochs but ultimately Count Octavian Rofrano – would be victims of his class’s aggrandisement. For the final act a seedy bordello masquerading as an elegant brothel, complete with the cross-dressing maitre-d’ of Alasdair Elliott and the two-way paintings. The detail paid to individuals as well as to creating specific images led an additional depth. For example, the Gigli-like Italian Tenor – beautifully sung by Georgio Berrugi – presenting an autographed record; the forward looking fashion for the Marschallin to peruse but ultimately dismiss; the arrogant militaristic snapshot that closed the second act. All these and many other effortlessly created a sense of time. Most interesting was the Marschallin’s ‘chemistry’ with the Police Commissioner and final departure from the stage with him. Arm in arm, Carsen intentionally or not seemed to hint that the Marschallin had decided to eschew young men for boys. Without a handkerchief to retrieve at the end, Carsen was able to end of the darkest of notes.

On stage, Covent Garden fielded a cast that was strong if yet all wholly establishing themselves in these particular roles. Given time, I’ve no doubt that some of these singers will become closely associated with their specific roles.

Without dispute however, the Octavian of Anna Stéphany dominated the evening. There was a strength – almost a masculinity – to her singing with hardly any hint of strain throughout the evening. If her ‘Viennese’ dialect was not as strong as that of other singers I have heard in this role, her acting definitely convinced. She effortlessly shifted from spoiled boy, to privileged youth to beguiling maid.

Sophie Bevan was a scintillating and experienced namesake – finding the right balance between ingénue and young woman. Vocally the part held no terrors for her. From the stratospheric writing of the presentation scene to the final duet her liquid tone was full of warmth without any hint of strain.

The Ochs of Matthew Rose and the Marschallin of Rachel Willis-Sörensön were both works in progress but show much promise, particularly Willis-Sörensön. She has a warm and resonant soprano and hopefully more experience in the role will deepen her characterisation as well as result in more fluidity and seamless phrasing of the vocal line as well as more colour

The remaining cast, led by Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Faninal and the Valzacchi and Annina of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke and Helene Schneiderman – completed a strong ensemble cast. Special mention must also be made of Miranda Keys’ Marianne Leitmetzerin.

Sadly, the efforts in the pit were not as polished. After a stunning Rosenkavalier in Birmingham, it seemed that Andris Nelsons couldn’t find his mojo for this performance. The playing of the orchestra – usually so burnished and warm – sounded decidedly brittle and rarely matched the magic of Strauss’ score and his direction wasn’t focused enough to pull out the transparency that is much needed in this music.

Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier is a joy to observe and listen to. Rachel Willis-Sörensön is definitely a Marschallin to keep an eye out for and when Covent Garden revives this –soon rather than later – I hope that they will cast her again.

Elektra-fied

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on May 2, 2016 at 11:15 am

 

Review – Elektra (Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast, Saturday 30 April 2016)

Elektra – Nina Stemme
Chrysothemis – Adrienne Pieczonka
Klytmänestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – Eric Owens
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander

Director – Patrice Chereau/Vincent Huguet
Set Designer – Richard Peduzzi
Costume Designer – Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting Designer– Dominique Bruguière

Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

It’s rare to get that feeling, when attending an opera or a concert, that you are witnessing greatness. Even rarer to think you are witnessing history. And almost impossible to consider it happening over a live HD broadcast.

The Metropolitan Opera’ s production of Elektra managed all three. Perfectly.

There was literally a musical convergence – an alignment of incredible talent, inspired staging and direction and outstanding music making. And the gravitational force that pulled it all together was Nina Stemme. And she has done this before – at the Proms.

This Elektra undoubtedly establishes her as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos ever. It was a performance of complete commitment and with the close-up afforded by the broadcast, of super-human, searing intensity. Vocally she was superb and compelling, creating emotional shock wave after shock wave, portraying Elektra with a full spectrum of conflicted feelings – revenge, love, hope and despair. Her voice has never sounded better, deploying a full range of colour and dynamics combined with astute musical intelligence in terms of phrasing, articulation and most importantly, a focus on the words.

As her sister, I can think of no better Chrysothemis than Adrienne Pieczonka. Her music is as difficult and formidable as her sister’s. It requires a soprano who can quite literally soar above the orchestra and Ms Pieczonka was vocally resplendent. Her soprano gleamed and shone brightly, but she tempered it brilliantly, shading the music to truly reflect this character’s vulnerability.

Waltraud Meier completed the trio of women of House Atreus. This was not a queen racked by fear and guilt – well not all the time – but one very much in control and unrepentant. It built on her portrayal in Dresden. From her first entrance, striding onto the stage, to the moment when her maid gives her the letter about Orest, Meier created a role that was more even in its emotional spectrum rather than relying on and wallowing in extremity. The humanity of her relationship with Elektra – stroking her hair as if reliving happier times – was especially poignant. Her was also a masterclass in the marriage of music, meaning and diction. Each phrase perfectly placed, every word loaded with emotion.

The men – Orest and Aegisth – were brilliantly supportive of the three women. Owens’ detachment seemed fitting but did mean than vocally he wasn’t as compelling as the Orest of the Tobias Lehrer I recently heard in Berlin.

But the surprise of the production was the Fifth Maid of none other than Roberta Alexander. I did not realise it was Ms Alexander until after the broadcast, but from her very first note it was a performance that made everyone sit up and listen. There was a keenness and precision to her portrayal the likes of which I’ve not witnessed in this role before.

Chereau’s production – first seen in Aix – only made me wish that I had seen it live. It also made me realise, at a time when good directors seem to be lacking, we have lost someone of incredible talent and insight.

This was an Elektra full of humanity and colour – finally an Elektra not deluged in blacks and greys. His attention to detail, not only of each character but how they related to and acted with each other also stood out. How a servant stepped intervened to protect Ms Alexander’s Fifth Maid. How the maids doubled as the Queen’s advisers. The desperate attention Chrysothemis paid to the young man. And at the end, Orest’s departure and Elektra’s retreat into a catatonic state.

Theirs wasn’t a victory but total and utter defeat.

While it’s hard to gauge the orchestra filtered through HD, they undoubtedly were magnificent, not for the lush to harsh sounds they produced as required but for the way they clearly responded to Salonen in the pit. His conducting brought out the very best of the score from its rhythmic vitality to its surging romanticism.

Even thousands of miles away, sitting in the dark, this Elektra was a complete privilege.

Four Play – Strauss in Berlin

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on April 13, 2016 at 9:49 am

Four days of exceptional singing.

Four days of brilliant orchestral playing.

Four days and a full range of emotions.

Four days in Berlin for Elektra, Die Äegyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier.

The standard of each performance was remarkably high. At times, incomparable.

It began and ended with two remarkable performances – Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra and the Marschallin of Michael Kaune. Ms Herlitzius divides people like a Riesling. But whatever your taste, there’s no denying that her interpretation is both formidable and mesmerising. Not always vocally beautiful or precise, it is searing in its intensity, emotionally raging and matched by a dramatic commitment that is almost overwhelming. What is missing is the breadth of phrasing but it was nonetheless an exceptional performance. And in the ‘other corner’ of this emotional boxing match, Doris Soffel invested Klytemnestra with authority both regal and musical.

Replacing Anja Harteros, Michaela Kaune immediately erased any sense of disappointment with an incredibly memorable Marschallin – beautifully observed, musically intelligent and delicately nuanced. It was perhaps one of the finest interpretations I’ve heard in a while. Every word, each phrase carefully shaped and delivered. The result? She did suddenly look old at her levée; bitter and resentful of youth as she muttered about ‘Resi’ and without a doubt the wife of a Feldmarschall when she finally dismissed Ochs. Yet it was her performance in the final trio that was definitive. Her singing and her acting conveyed a simple fact – that her life was entering a new and final phase. One of loneliness. No more Octavians hiding in her bedchamber. It wasn’t resignation as much as defeat. Heartbreaking.

In Helena, Ricarda Merbeth and Laura Aiken were vocally resplendent, effortlessly riding the crest of Strauss rich and heady orchestration. Indeed in the opening of Act Two, Merberth’s post-coital vocal rapture not only matched that of the music but had me wondering she had abandoned Menelaus – wonderfully sung here by Stefan Vinke – for the boy Paris if the sex was so good? And as ever it was delightful to hear Ronnita Miller. When will we hear her in London, I wonder?

The real discovery of the four days was Daniela Sindram. Her Octavian went from swaggering seventeen year old to love struck teenager over three acts. Combined with real acting talent is a remarkably rich, burnished yet darkly hued mezzo that shows no sign of strain throughout its range. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Manuela Uhl and Mark Delavan both delivered conscientious performances. Delevan’s was both musical and dramatically confident but slightly underpowered. Uhl’s Chryosthemis failed to ignite the much needed desperation and her vocal line didn’t soar quite enough as others in the role. As Danae, and I saw her in exactly the same production a few years ago, she gave a beautifully nuanced performance but it took until the final act before she shone vocally.

As Der Rosenkavalier’s Sophie, Siobhan Stagg’s performance captured the young girl’s skittishness. I’ve also no doubt that the harsh edge to her voice will be ironed out as her voice develops further. When that happens, Ms Stagg could become a memorable Sophie.

Each and every other singer over the four nights was of an exceptionally high standard. Exceptional mention for Tobias Kehrer’s broodingly resonant Oreste, Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s patrician Faninal and the brightly voiced Midas of Raymond Very. All three particularly stood out in roles that more commonly suffer. It’s also easy to forget that Der Rosenkavalier is truly an ensemble opera and there were exceptionally strong performances across the board including Stephanie Lauricella as Annina, Fionnuala McCarthy’s Marianne and tenor Matthew Newlin.

It was also refreshing to sit through four intelligent, well-thought out productions.

Elektra, directed by Kirsten Harms, was couched in the inevitable doom and gloom of overwhelming tragedy. Enclosed by three walls, it was reminiscent of the garbage chute in Star Wars, especially as the ensemble spent a lot of time floundering around in the mud. Just once I’d like to see a bit more colour at Klytemnestra’s court. She’s a rich woman at the head of a corrupt and debauched court – you think she’d have some fun with it, wouldn’t you?

The Kismet-meets-Indiana Jones of Die Ägyptische Helena (Marco Arturo Marelli) was a visual delight. And xxx managed the shift from the more comedic opening to the closing pathos with great skill. And as Helena says farewell to Aithra and her cohorts, it felt that perhaps she wasn’t really going to completely give up her flirtatious ways, as Menelaus reaction also seemed to convey.

Strauss was often criticised for his commercial acumen. He fought hard to control the copyright of his music, and perhaps rightly so having witnessed the chaos of Wagner’s own attempts. The sheets-of-music-cum-shower-of-gold in Die Liebe Der Danae was a clear reference to this, as was the piano spinning ominously overhead throughout. Yet at the end, Danae willingly handed over the gold/music to Jupiter in exchange for eternal happiness with the donkey herder. Not sure Strauss would have agreed.

Götz Friedrich’s Der Rosenkavalier was first performed in 1993 and is ample demonstration that if a production works, why change it? It seamlessly brought together the worlds of 18th Century Vienna with the world that would have been more familiar to Strauss himself. I loved the fact that the ‘maskerade’ referred to by the Marschallin at the ended actually begun before the opera started. As mistress and lover dressed for their breakfast in Act One, they clearly donned outfits inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Another nice touch was when the Marschallin scented the silver rose in Da geht er hin – it added a certain frisson in the Second Act when Octavian smells the rose and then looks up at Sophie.

But it was the poignancy of this production that was most enduring – especially the final scene. After a ‘Ja, ja’ of resignation, the Marschallin stood in the background, destined only ever to observe Octavian from a distance. In some productions, there’s a lingering hope that Octavian might return to her. Not in this one. For director Friedrich, the Marschallin’s First Act view of men cruelly rings true.

The bedrock on which these four days rested was the superlative orchestral playing and singing of the Deutsche Oper. The players in the pit executed each opera perfectly on four successive nights – a testament not only to their stamina but also their knowledge and clearly evident love of the music. They were directed by a quartet of conductors with an intimate knowledge of every musical detail which enabled them not only to balance singers and the orchestra, but most importantly giving both time and space to breathe.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but his Elektra revealed an incredible range of colours and sororities with a vigorous attention to rhythmic detail. Andrew Litton veritably wallowed and revelled in the lush and sensuous sound world of Helena, finding a muscularity to it but never letting it swamp singers or players alike. Sebastian Weigle brought a transparency to the score of Danae – rarely have I heard the opening of the final act played with such luminosity. And while Rosenkavalier got off to an unsteady start, control was quickly asserted, with each and every waltz theme given loving attention.

In all, an incredible four days. Yet it’s hard not to bemoan the quality of musical life beyond London. I know funding is different, but it’s a shame that our own government doesn’t recognise the value – both cultural and economic – of a serious commitment to the arts and arts education.

Similarly it’s hard not to wonder how artistically Berlin gets it so right, and more often than not our own opera houses – both of them – get it so, so wrong.

 

 

Habe Dank!

In Review, Richard Strauss on April 10, 2016 at 8:24 am

Review – Renée Fleming ( Barbican, Wednesday 6 April 2016) 

Renée Fleming (Soprano) & Hartmann Höll (Piano) 

For some reason, this felt like a valedictory concert. I sincerely hope not. I know that Renée Fleming is drawing a curtain on her stage performances but I’m hoping that she will continue recitals for many, many years to come. 

Entitled “Love, loss and fury” the selection of lieder ran the whole gamut of human emotion. Perhaps overall there was more love and loss, than fury except for the somewhat inevitable comment on Donald Trump. 

Ms Fleming’s introduction prior to Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben stated that she had only recently started performing this cycle. Overall it was a convincing performance but I think that it will get even better over time. With more involvement and projection of the text and perhaps less emotional constraint this could very well become a centrepiece of Ms Fleming’s future recital repertoire. 

The Rachmaninov that followed was much more emphatic and much more alive. Setting the scene immediately with O, dolgo budu ya (In the silence of the secret night), Ne poy, krasavitsa, primne was the highlight of the first half, demonstrating Ms Fleming’s innate ability to spin out the most beautiful legato line. 

The second half was dedicated to two of the soprano’s passions – Richard Strauss and new music. 

Jazz musician and composer Patricia Barber’s set of songs demonstrate a confident and mature talent. Perhaps some of the songs could do with being slightly tightened and it would potentially be interesting to hear these restored for a smaller chamber ensemble. Of the five songs, it was Morpheus which was the most memorable. With its insistent repeated note buried under rich textures, it most closely captured the words being sung. 

Yet it was the Strauss, here and in the encore, which stole the entire evening. Ms Fleming has had a career-long love affair with Richard Strauss. Some may disagree with me, but she is one of the best interpreters of his lieder performing today. Vocally, they fit like a glove and emotionally, she invests more in his lieder and operas than in other music. Each song was exquisite in its performance. The skittishness of Das Bächlein was perfectly captured, and there was some stunning colouring from Hartmann Höll in Ruhe, Meine Seele. The sense of loss and nostalgia in Allerseelen – perhaps one of Strauss’ most beautiful lieder – was almost tangible and contrasted so perfectly with the triumphant, blazing Zueignung

Three contrasting encores ended the recital. After a sultry Summertime and a faultless O, mio babbino caro the only way to end the evening was with Strauss. And Morgen!, Strauss’ wedding gift to his difficult wife was the only and perfect choice. Here, as throughout the evening, Höll showed himself to be an intuitive, insightful and sympathetic accompanist and Ms Fleming’s performance of this gem reminded everyone in the hall not only of her love for this composer, but also what an exceptional performer she is. 

Habe Dank Ms Fleming and come back soon.

Mommy, dearest.

In BBC, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 1, 2014 at 11:28 am

Review – Elektra (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 31 August 2014)

Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Klytemnestra – Dame Felicity Palmer
Oreste – Johann Reuter
Aegisthus – Robert Künzli
Maids – Katarina Bradić, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger & Iris Kupke
Overseer – Miranda Keys
Young Servant – Ivan Turić
Tutor – Jongmin Park

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

An all-most perfect Elektra made for a weekend of memorable Strauss.

Overall it was an electrifying ensemble performance led by an incredible performance by Dame Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra.

It’s a role I have seen her perform once before – under Gergiev at the Barbican. Then as now, she was in total command not only of the role musically and interpretively, but of the rest of the cast when she was on the stage. Her diction was perfect, her interpretation of the text flawless, her projection over the orchestra masterful and her characterization beautifully balanced and intelligent. In contrast to the introspection of Waltraud Meier in Dresden earlier this year, Dame Felicity’s Queen was made of steelier stuff, regretting nothing and only briefly showing any sign of affection for her estranged daughter.

As her other daughter, Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Chrysothemis was similarly strong both vocally and in terms of portrayal. While overall she lacked the rich timbre of Adrienne Pieczonka, her bright and gleaming soprano was beautifully matched to the role, and at times her sense of desperation – to escape not only her life but the horror of what her sister proposed – was palpable. In Ich hab’s wie Feuer in der Brust Barkmin negotiated Strauss’ difficult vocal line, delivering the often-missed bloom and her closing calls for her brother were searing in their intensity.

The two men were equally very good. Johann Reuter was a darkly toned Oreste – luxury casting similar to Pape – and Robert Künzli’s light, supple voiced Aegisthus was pointedly arrogant.

Of the rest of the cast, the maids and Overseer also delivered particularly strong and clearly delineated performance – vocally and dramatically. Katarina Bradić has a beautifully rich and lustrous tone and the Fifth Maid of Iris Kupke was also impressive.

What of Elektra herself? I often think that there isn’t the subtlety of characterisation required for Elektra as there is for Salome. The characterisation here is much more focused on a single act – revenge – and without the need for an evolution and awakening of feeling – the dawning sexual desire that is required for Herod’s stepdaughter and which Nina Stemme captured perfectly the previous night.

I admit – as I have said before – that I remain to be completely convinced by Christine Goerke. As at Covent Garden while there is thrilling vocal heft in the middle and lower register, I find that Ms Goerke’s upper range can sound somewhat constricted and at times there is a slight hesitation before singing the higher notes. As the evening progressed I also discerned a slight burr in her voice as well as challenges of intonation. And in those moments of tenderness her voice still lacks that sense of warmth which would give her Elektra a fully-rounded interpretation.

Yet there is no denying her total commitment in the role. The confrontation with her mother was chilling because of her demeanour and the delivery of the text. And there was no denying that that overall it was a compelling performance and stronger than that of Covent Garden.

On the podium Bychov gave the music the necessary space to breathe, indulging in the opera’s lyricism without losing momentum – the perfect balance for Strauss’ music. From the opening bars to the final C major chord, he tempered the orchestra and never let it drown the singers but he also highlighted the more chamber-like moments of the score, drawing out the orchestral light and shade – for example in Klytemnestra’s opening scene and just before her death. And the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded in kind with some of the most eloquent playing I have heard from them in a long time.

With the final C major chord, as Elektra lay dead on the stage, Chrysothemis weeping over her body, there was no doubt that together with Salome, it was a luxuriant – almost decadent – weekend of Strauss to remember.

When the Rose is Faded …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Prom 6, Tuesday 22 July 2014)

Der Marschallin – Kate Royal
Octavian – Tara Erraught
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Sophie – Louise Alder

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Robin Ticciati (Conductor)

Memory may still dwell on – to quote Walter de la Mer.

Perhaps it was too much to expect three near perfect performances of Der Rosenkavalier in a row. If Germany can score seven goals in a game, why can’t we score a hat-trick with Strauss’ most perfect opera?

But after incredibly memorable performances in London and Birmingham it was seemingly too much to ask for a perfect – or at least passable – Rosenkavalier at the Proms.

Perhaps something got lost in translation on the road from East Sussex, but despite the well-fuelled controversy of the first night reviews, Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier is a pale shadow of this opera’s true glory.

I am not sure the semi staging – raised above the orchestra – helped matters but then again Richard Jones over-used vocabulary – fussy and at times crowded and distracting – didn’t either. Staging operas at the Proms – as witnessed last year by Barenboim’s Ring – need not be trial by error as was the case here. Perhaps Glyndeborne should have settled for a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier or perhaps chosen Rinaldo, more suited to the ambition they tried to deliver.

And personally I think that on the whole, this was a miscast Rosenkavalier.

Of the three women – and I am sure no one will agree with me – Kate Royal’s Marschallin was the weakest musically. To debut as the Marschallin is daunting enough but I am not sure that this is a role suited to her voice. That is not to say that Ms Royal is not an accomplished soprano – just not in possession of the temperament, insight or specific technique required for this incredibly challenging role.

It requires not only incredible technique but also the ability to find the nuances of light and shade in the music that Strauss wrote for the greatest of his heroines. The Albert Hall might be an unforgiving acoustic but there was – to my ear – a discernable and distracting ‘beat’ in Royal’s voice and a harshness where there should have been warmth and depth of tone. Often as the vocal line soared above the stave, she snatched at the highest notes and she delivered rather than interpreted the words she was singing.

Tara Erraught as Octavian was bright – almost brittle – in her singing. No amount of thigh slapping could hide the fact that again this was more about singing the right notes over interpreting the role. With a tendency to too much vibrato in the higher reaches of her voice, again there as a lack of – dare I say it – meat on her vocal bones.

Both Sophie and Baron Ochs were replaced for this performance. Franz Hawlata – a magnificent Baron in Birmingham – made the greatest impression in the leading roles although he also seemed somewhat lost on the stage and sometimes stuggled to be heard above the orchestra.

Louise Adler replaced Teodora Gheoghiu and clearly has a promising career ahead of her. Seemingly a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music International Opera School and the inaugural Kir Te Kanawa Scholar, if this was her debut it was a promising one as she demonstrated a natural affinity with the role of Sophie. She capably negotiated the soaring lines – despite a slight hint of strain and steeliness – with confidence. The Presentation Scene was particularly affecting but also threw up in contrast that Erraught’s voice lacked much needed warmth.

The remaining members of the ensemble performed their roles with confidence if not – with the exception of strong performances by Andrej Dunaev as the Italian Singer and the Valzacchi of Christopher Gillett’s – clarity.

Yet if the singing was below par then Robin Ticciati’s direction ‘below stage’ was also disappointing. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced some wonderful but inflexible and colourless playing under his baton. There were no braying horns or transparency in the woodwind and the strings didn’t play with the much needed Straussian sheen. But most noticeably, there was a lack of two things. First, ebb and flow – most noticeably in the Marschallin’s First Act monologue and subsequent closing duet with Octavian as well as in the Presentation Scene. In the latter scene, it’s not enough to rallentando simply into the forte before the Presentation. Indeed, Ticciati’s conducting didn’t allow the conversational nature of Strauss’ music – so critical in this opera – to come through. And the second missing element, just as critical, was swagger. This opera needs swagger. And it was missing.

Again perhaps the transitions to a stage at the Royal Albert Hall had a marked effect on the overall production, but singer-for-singer, this was a pallid Rosenkavalier.

Review – What An Ochs

In Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Saturday 24 May, 2014)

Marschallin – Soile Isokoski
Octavian – Alice Coote
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Herr Faninal – Mark Stone
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Valzacchi – Bonaventura Bottone
Annina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Major Domo/Landlord – Ted Schmidt
Marchande de Modes/Marianne Leitmetzerin – Elaine McKrill
Italian Tenor – Ji-Min Park
A Notary/Commissar – Eddie Wade
Vendor of Animals – Paul Curievici
Footmen/Servants – Nicholas Ashby, Paul Curievici, Edward Harrison, Joseph Kennedy

CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s been a Rosenkavalier-Fest for many reasons recently. First the magnificently refined performances under Sir Mark Elder in London featuring Anne Schwanewilms, Sarah Connolly and Lucy Crowe.

Then the opening night review of Glyndebourne’s new production overshadowed by the gratuitously vicious and uncalled for criticism of Tara Erraught.

And last night a complete concert performance at Symphony Hall. If I read the programme correctly, it’s somewhat surprising that this was the first complete performance of Der Rosenkavalier in Birmingham.

Even if it wasn’t, it was a performance of incredible musicianship, virtuosity, passion and sheer verve.

And as in London a few weeks ago, the casting of the three principles – or in this case four – was luxurious.

While it might be normal to start with the three leading ladies – and they were truly magnificent – the night ultimately belonged to Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs von Lerchanau.

His performance was a tour de force both musically and dramatically. Often in concert productions the directing is either intrusive or limp. On the stage of Symphony Hall it was well executed and meaningful. His Ochs was a blend of misinformed droit du seigneur and comedic timing that – for some reason – reminded me of Eric Morecombe. And securely riding above his stage presence was a vocal ability that was second to none. His voice was resonant and beautifully rounded and showed no signs of strain at either end of his range. His raison d’être in the First Act went beyond bluster to a meaningful – if misguided – Credo, and his singing at the close of the Second Act was a lesson in fine singing.

The three women were similarly impressive. Soile Isokoski is a finely nuanced interpreter of Richard Strauss but previously I have felt that her performances have lacked a certain vocal lustre. So I was incredibly pleased that her performance demonstrated that whatever ‘mojo’ she had temporarily misplaced was back. And in full force. From her first entry to her final ‘Ja, Ja’ she was a Marschallin in full control. There was a luminosity – a golden sheen – to her voice that fitted Strauss’ soaring music perfectly. From top to bottom there was a rich lustre to each and every note.

Her performance of Da geht er hin was markedly different to that of Ms Schwanewilms. As opposed to the philosophic, almost intellectual resignation of the latter, Ms Isokoski’s was firmly based in a more emotional spectrum and therefore the impact was incredibly forceful. While maintaining that aristocratic distance you really felt that at the heart if it this was a Marschallin who was very much a woman. And a woman not so much afraid of age, but of being left alone. It left a lump in my throat.

As her Octavian, Alice Coote married a beautifully bronzed and shining tone with incredible acting skill. Her comic turn and sense of timing with Ochs was brilliant and combined with the vocal splendour of her singing. There was a warmth and brilliance to her tone that didn’t bleach in the upper ranges and her technique – demonstrated in her ability to scale down her voice when appropriate – demonstrates what a unique and special talent she has.

And Sophie Bevan provided a steely Sophie. In character that is. Vocally she was equally splendid. Her lower and middle range has a beautiful smokiness to it and when she effortlessly rose to stratospheric heights in the Second Act it was breathtaking.

The remaining cast members all performed their roles with great vocal and acting aplomb. Special mention must go to Ji-Min Park’s Italian Tenor (and for his two handed farewell at the end of the evening); to Pamela Helen Stephen’s Annina and to Elaine McKrill’s Marianne Leitmetzerin. And also to Paul Curivici – his bright tenor promises a bright future.

And the final trio – let’s admit it – is often the ultimate reason for attending Der Rosenkavalier. Not only because it is the emotional pay-off we have known was going to happen from the Marschallin’s monologue in Act One, but also because it is the most sublime piece of music Strauss ever wrote.

And in Symphony Hall it was perfection.

Andris Nelsons daringly took the trio at a slower tempo than I’ve heard in a while. But he never lost control of its various strands, unfolding the glorious music with an authority that demonstrated he clearly knew the overall architecture of this opera. And not once did he allow the singers – as is often the case – to drown one another out. Each of the three vocal lines was clear and distinct as he drew them to that crushing climax at the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen at which point the singers – and the audience – were overwhelmed by the orchestra. As Strauss wanted.

How anything could follow that was impossible to consider but Mesdames Coote and Bevan then performed the most sublime Ist ein Traum, scaling their voices back to the finest pianissimi I’ve ever heard.

Supporting the singers was the CBSO – players and singers adult and junior. The Chorus was suitably full-throated and the Youth Chorus revelled in their role – especially manhandling Hawlata off stage. I hope the girl who fell over in the excited exit was okay.

And the orchestra – after a somewhat hesitant start – demonstrated that they actually have this music music not only in their bones but in their hearts. Under Nelsons’ superlative direction they had that European depth of tone – not only in the strings but also that elusive timbre in the woodwind and brass – that is vital in Strauss. Even more than usual, Nelsons and his players found that often-missed vulgarity in the Second and Third Acts and that necessary lilt in the waltzes that permeate this opera.

As the final notes died away, the audience could barely wait for the final notes to die before showing their appreciation for an incredible evening of music making and drama.

The ovation was a fitting tribute.

In Gottes Namen please record this.

Ja, Ja.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts) & Mozart Symphony No. 38
(Barbican Hall, Thursday 8 May 2014)

Marschallin – Anne Schwanewilms
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Sophie – Lucy Crowe

Additional singers – Gerard Schneider, Thomas Atkins, Johannes Kammler and David Shipley.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

What a magnificent evening of performances that made me fall in love with Der Rosenkavalier all over again.

But before the sumptuous world of Richard Strauss, Elder and the orchestra gave us a taut yet beautifully shaped performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38. Within its three movement structure there are hints of Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – a smart piece of programming alluding to love, intrigue and lust on which Strauss’ own opera set in roughly the same era is based.

If the orchestra played with grace and vitality in the first half, then in the second they launched into the introduction of Der Rosenkavalier with unabashed vigour and enthusiasm. There was no doubt in Elder’s mind what was going on in the Marschallin’s bedchamber as the curtain rises.

I don’t think I have heard the LSO sound – well – so European in some time. The string playing was warm and luscious, the winds luminous and the brass – and especially the horns – exultant.

They literally reveled in Strauss’ music. When accompanying the singers they were sensitive to the mood and the words but when needed the sound they produce was prodigious. The waltz interlude at the beginning of the Third Act extract, for example, was both vulgar yet triumphant.

And rising above Strauss’ opulent orchestration was a trio of singers who could not be bettered.

While it is hard to single them out individually, I must admit that Anne Schwanewilms established herself as the pre-eminent Strauss interpreter. I have long admired not only her concert and stage performances, but also her recordings and cannot fathom why she does not perform more often in the UK.

Our loss significantly.

As the Marschallin at the Barbican she was vocally formidable. But not only did she display a vocal authority – scaling down to the smallest yet still distinct softness as well as soar above the orchestra without a break in tone or vocal colour – but also a depth of understanding of how to communicate the Hoffmansthal’s words. Her crystal clear diction was coupled with an innate sense of the conversational nature of Strauss’ vocal line when needed – lingering on words that demonstrated an insight and level of musicianship that is hard to match today.

Da geht er hin was an incredible performance both in terms of her singing and her characterization. Her Marschallin was a woman of small, measured – almost calculated – gestures but they were gestures that spoke volumes. At Die Zeit im grunde, she literally bled her voice to a vocal pale that was chilling.

Sarah Connolly was her equal as the boisterous Octavian so acutely in lust – not love – with her. Connolly again reveled in Strauss music, effortlessly rising and falling with the vocal line, with a lustrous tone that sparkled.

And as Sophie, Lucy Crowe immediately captured the essence of the very short extract from the beginning of Act Two. A devilish part there was no hint of stress or strain as Strauss sent her into the vocal stratosphere.

That moment when Octavian and Sophie’s eyes meet over the rose was beautifully timed.

Also there was a real sense of luxury in having four male voices and again they all sang their small roles exuberantly.

But of course it was the trio that the audience was waiting for. And thankfully Elder and his performers gave us the necessary lead in into what must be Strauss’ most glorious pieces of music, and one of the most glorious scenes in opera.

That moment when the winds strike their chord and Octavian turns to Marie Theres’ was magical. And listening to Ms Schwanewilms unfurl that magnificent melody of resignation I would venture, broke a few hearts in the audience.

Definitely mine.

And as the three singers weaved around each other, Elder masterfully edged them closer and closer to that thrilling climax with the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen leaping out clearly over the orchestra.

I’ve said before that for me the most critical words in this opera are the final words sung by the Marschallin.

And here, Anne Schwanewilms filled that single phrase– Ja, ja – with such emotion that in the final closing duet – with Strauss’ tangy harmonies in flutes and violins – Elder captured the sense of uncertainty of the young lovers future.

Indeed, it was an evening when the singers and the orchestra, marshaled by Elder, managed to create the same level of excitement and emotional weight as if we had watched the entire opera.

And I only wish we had.

But these extracts from Der Rosenkavalier will remain with the audience for a very long time.

And perhaps we shall see more of Anne Schwanewilms in the UK.

A Woman of Little Substance

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 20, 2014 at 9:17 am

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Covent Garden, Monday 17March 2017)

Die Kaiser/The Emperor – Johan Botha
Die Kaiserin/The Empress – Emily McGee
Die Amme/The Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Barak The Dyer– Johan Reuter
Sein Weib/Barak’s Wife – Elena Pankratova

Director – Claus Guth
Designs – Christian Schmidt
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter
Video Designs – Andi A. Müller
Dramaturg – Ronny Dietrich

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Semyon Bychkov (Conductor)

For the first time in many years I suffered what should be a recognised medical complaint during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten at Covent Garden.

Premature Expectation.

That is the only reason that I can think of why I did share the overall sense of enthusiasm and pleasure that the majority of people experienced with the Royal Opera House’s co-production with La Scala.

FroSch has quickly become one of my favourite operas by Richard Strauss, supplanting even Der Rosenkavalier in my affections. But on this evening it failed to have the same effect on me as it did either live in Vienna or by telecast from Munich.

Perhaps I had expected too much from this production that has elicited such an enthusiastic response from both audience and critics both in London and Milan. But once the curtain had descended I walked down Bow Street with an overriding sense of disappointment rather than the more common feeling of overwhelming wonder and elation at this incredible opera.

Strauss himself dubbed this the ‘last romantic opera’, and it contains some of his most beautiful music and soaring melodies. I don’t deny there were moments of beauty when the majesty of Strauss’ incredible score shone out.

But it wasn’t a consistent evening.

However laurels should crown the heads of Johann Botha and Elena Pankratova as the Emperor and Barak’s Wife respectively as well as Ms Schuster as Die Amme.

Does Johann Botha possess one of the few truly heldentenor voices on the stage today? Its bright, clean sound rises effortlessly above even the densest of Strauss’ orchestration, with Botha’s keen musical intelligence shaping the vocal line with both incredible grace and eloquence. He many not be the strongest actor but he makes his presence felt and I for one wished during this performance that Strauss had given him more to sing.

Ms Pankratova repeated her steely performance from Munich, finding the right balance between shrewish life and a woman desperate to be loved by (any) man. I won’t forget in a hurry her rich and warm soprano, especially at the opening of the Third Act and any weaknesses in her characterisation lay with Guth’s direction for this character.

The Amme of Michaela Schuster was more than equal to the demanding music that Strauss composed for this character. Vocally secure – and more often than not magnificent – even in the most taxing of passages, she rose above the challenge of the music to also delivered the most rounded and believable character to the very end. Her final glace to the audience spoke volumes of this Nurse’s malevolence which left – hopefully intentional in Guth’s confused vision – a final question mark over what the opera was all about.

I last saw Emily McGee in Munich when she replaced an ill-disposed Elsa. She is a soprano that possesses a vibrant soprano based on a foundation of both strong technique and musical insight. However I did wonder if the role of the Empress is slightly beyond her at this time? This role was originally created for Maria Jertiza and while Ms McGee produces a honeyed tone in her middle register, either end of her vocal range sounded less robust and at the top definitely pinched. Her first scene sounded more challenging vocally than it should have and it wasn’t until the final act that I heard the kind of voice that is required for this role.

The same can be said of the vocally resplendent Johann Reuter. While he displayed his usual confident and firm delivery, I felt not only that his Barak lacked a sense of finer nuance and colour but also more importantly, at times the Dyer was too inward looking in term of his performance.

The remaining members of the cast delivered their roles well if not exceptionally. The three brothers barrelled through their roles both in terms of their singing and acting and of the remaining cast it was a shame that the singing of the Night Watchmen – Michel de Souza, Jihoon Kim and Adrian Clarke – was obscured by, from where I was sitting, them singing from the back of the auditorium.

I can’t say that the Orchestra of the Royal Opera have that instinctive ‘feel’ for Strauss’ music as some of their German counterparts but Symon Bychkov drew some of the richest and warmest playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera that I have heard in quite a while. Perhaps they were inspired by Bernard Haitink’s attendance as Bychkov produced a level of transparency and coaxed a range of dynamics and colour from the players that was one of the highlights of the evening. My one reservation, as it has been with other performances of FroSch, is that I wish conductors would give the music more time to breathe. Again that magical cello moment in the Second Act felt rushed rather than revelled in which meant that when it returns – in a more frantic guise – in the Emperor’s scene that follows, the emotional impact is lost.

FroSch will never be an easy opera to direct. Its mixture of fairytale and morality shot through with the contemporary obsession with psychoanalysis makes it an almost impossible story to tell. Like Carsen’s production in Vienna, clearly Guth took as his starting point the idea of dreams and their interpretation. Unlike Carsen, his sense of narrative became confused with almost overburdened and incessant symbolism that undermined any sense of real character development.

Was it a dream? Was it a hallucination?

But it wasn’t so much too hard to tell what Guth was trying to say than Guth not clearly knowing himself. Whereas Vienna, Munich, Copenhagen and even Kent’s production for the Mariinsky provided a clearer narrative framework with success to a greater or lesser degree, Guth provided a single set. The monotony of the sanatorium-cum-bedroom set was relieved only by a rotating back wall offering more often than not less than sophisticated imagery and a conveyor belt which seemed more about getting props on and off set quickly that adding any depth to the storytelling. And in an age of animation of the likes of the recent Don Giovanni, Müller’s video designs had an infantile but-not-in-an-intentional-way feel to them.

Having the Empress mirror or mimic the Dyer’s Wife to portray both the duality of their personalities as well as the opposing forces that they represented was never truly defined beyond the basic. Its sense of pantomime never developed into a more effective and powerful counterpoint between the two characters and those around them. Personally I fancied that the Nurse – in some kind of fantasy-stoke-psychoanalytical way – was some kind of succubus but I don’t agree with Guth’s premise that the Nurse “strives” for evil but only does good.

And while the use of dancers as gazelles and the Falcon was inspired at the beginning – as was Barak preparing a skin of a white gazelle – it quickly paled as a device. Their constant appearance symbolised not so much the characters and their alter egos than Guth’s lack of inspiration. Similarly Keikobad’s ‘death’ at the end seemed superfluous and gestural rather than dictated by any narrative and the dilettante playboy was unbelievable not because he wasn’t either naked or semi-clothed as in other productions, but because he looked like he had stepped straight from a Noel Coward play, devoid of any sexuality or allure.

Finding a convincing ending for this opera is of course the real challenge. I have yet to see a truly convincing denouement but this one left me completely non-plussed. Revealing all the characters sitting as members of a wedding party complete with judge had no connection with the drama that had just unfolded on the stage. Nor did the subsequent tableau of the children, surrounding the protagonists and looking to all intent and purpose as if they were either about to embark to Salzburg to sing Doe-A-Deer or re-enact that famous scene from Titanic.

As I mentioned the closing moments with the Empress at the window and the Nurse looking back at the audience might have left us with a visually arresting final image, but its effect was – I think – more luck than calculated storytelling from the director.

And ultimately a production that fails to tell the story clearly or at least intelligently, distracts from the overall impact.

Sadly for me then, this production promised both before and from the start so much to look forward to. Perhaps my expectation was raised too high before and dashed as quickly.

But I have heard it said that it sounded ravishing from other parts of Covent Garden. Perhaps I should go back one last time.

But close my eyes.

Women on the verge.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Review – Elektra (Semperoper, Dresden, Friday 31January 2014)

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – René Pape
Aegisth – Frank van Aken
Companion of Orest – Peter Lobert
The Maids – Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Nadja Mchantaf
The Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Peter Lobert

Director – Barbara Frey
Bühnenbild – Muriel Gerstner
Costumes – Bettina Walter
Lighting – Gérard Cleven
Dramaturgy – Micaela v. Marcard

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden

Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

If the rest of Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary maintains the standard of Semperoper’s Elektra, then 2014 will be more than a memorable year.

It will be a fitting homage.

The singing, the playing and – for me at least – the production came together almost perfectly.

In terms of the singing, if there was ever an opera equivalent of Fantasy Football League (please can someone invent it) then this cast was a ‘dream team’.

Is there a soprano on stage today who is a more convincing Elektra than Evelyn Herlitzius?

In compete command of her vocal technique, her rigorously disciplined instrument permitted her to take vocal risks that, combined with some finely tuned acting, made her characterisation so visceral. Yet at the same time she balanced it with an innate and musically intelligent sense of shade and colour. I don’t think I’ve heard the Recognition scene sung with such emotional and musical inteliigence, both Herlitzius and Pape completely committed to and immersed in that wonderful moment.

Therefore I find it incredible that we haven’t seen Ms Herlitzius in London. But then the same can be said of Ms Pieczonka in our capital and not forgetting that Anne Schwanewilms has only recently made her debut at the Met.

Such a towering performance from so physically slight a singer could not but cast a shadow on the other members of the cast.

But only slightly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis contained all the trademark intelligence and eloquence that this soprano brings to Strauss. Her bright, piercing soprano for the most part sailed over the orchestra and as with her troubled sister, Schwanewilms is an instinctive actress. She portrayed both the often-missed vulnerability of this character as well as her exasperation and desperation. Her final return to the stage dressed as the never-to-bride, even at that moment conveying the forlorn hope that she might marry even after the double murder, and punctuated with the most heartrending calls for her brother will remain with me for a long time.

Who doesn’t admire and love Waltraud Maier both as singer and actress? Just as her Waltraute for Barenboim, Ms Meier’s Queen demonstrated that this soprano is a seasoned veteran who brings a real intellectual depth as well as formidable interpretive skills to any character she portrays.

Onto this Klytämnestra, Maier overlaid a real sense of fragility onto the more expected paranoia. Her scene with her daughter not only laid bare these feelings as well as her wariness and fear of Elektra, but also the unbreakable Mother-Daughter bond not often seen in productions. Just before the scene ended there was an unexpected moment of tenderness between the two that made Klytämnestra’s final exit, clearly accepting her fate as foreseen by her own daughter, all the more chilling especially as it was as if she was entering a tomb.

However at points it seemed as if Ms Maier was too immersed in the character. Her projection dimmed to too much of a whisper as if internalising only to herself the emotional journey the queen was going through.

It was also wonderful to hear René Pape in the role of Oreste. His dark timbre was perfect, suitably grave yet burnished and I have to admit in a production of generally small gestures his acting was powerful.

Where other productions of Elektra are often let down, the principals here were brilliantly supported by the rest of the ensemble. If I had to single out one other member of the cast then it would be the Fifth Maid of Nadja Mchantaf. Velvet-toned and even throughout her range she brought a real sense of dimension to this short-lived role and is definitely one to watch.

And in the pit, Christian Thielemann was magnificent, marshalling singers and orchestra with incredible authority and knowledge of the score. I personally think his affinities lie closer to Strauss than Wagner, and last night only confirmed that belief.

From the very first notes, he drew exemplary and confident playing from the orchestra. Where some conductors miss or submerge the detail in the mistaken belief that Elektra should simply assault the eardrums, Thielemann uncovered the lightness amidst the darkness and transparency within Strauss’ sometimes ‘over-orchestrated’ textures. And while he never let us forget that this is the composer’s most expressionist work, he celebrated the lyricism imbued both in the soaring melodies and motifs and similarly he was also not above judging when the orchestra – dominating the emotional mood with a motif or theme – rose over the singers.

More so than I’ve heard in previous productions of Elektra, Thielemann was not scared to allow the music to breathe, unfettering phrases and just as importantly seeking out the silences which are so essential in creating that sense of impending dread far more effectively than a hack and thrash battle through to the end.

It might not have been to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed the fresh perspective of Barbara Frey’s production, her first for Semperoper.

Let’s not forget that Elektra – both for Hofmannsthal and originally for Euripides – is ultimately a family tragedy. This was Frey’s focus but she also suggested new perspectives and interpretations.

For this director Klytämnestra may have wielded the axe, but all three women were complicit in Agamemnon’s death.

Elektra for example isn’t dishevelled and abandoned. Rather, in a dress more suited for an evening of revelry than the mourning weeds she more often dons in productions, she is no outcast.

Chrysothemis’ appearance from the very beginning not only reinforces her role as go-between but also voyeur but her final appearance in that extravagant wedding dress again hinted at a more secure position within the household.

And this was was a production of small gestures and actions. It was like watching a slow fuse burn and in some ways reminded me of Almodovar. Small gestures and tics – like Klytämnestra’s rubbing of her arm, Chryosthemis raising her arm in despair, the way the Maids hunched protectively together – replaced the histrionics.

And Frey had clearly spent time with the singers. As well as the Mother-Daughter relationship, Frey and the singers also re-examined other pivotal moments.

There was a surprising sexuality to Frey’s Elektra. Her flirting with Aegisth for example hinted at something darker in her personality. And as she tried to persuade her sister to commit the murder, in that moment as she caressed Chrysothemis, she morphed into lover and future husband. The look of subsequent horror on Chrysothemis’ face isn’t only the result of thoughts of matricide but also – perhaps – seeing a side of her sister she wished she hadn’t.

The aforementioned Recognition scene was built not only on the singing and orchestral playing under Thielemann, but also the direction on stage. This wasn’t an emotional roller coaster or brutal revelation that it sometimes is. After the initial shock Elektra and Orest rediscovered their childhood love. I, for one wasn’t jarred by the use of children as their younger selves and the way Herlitzius and Pape acted with one another – ending as it did with their foreheads press together as if accepting their own fates – was beautiful. Orest’s seeming reluctance to commit murder was similarly well observed and even Elektra’s final ‘dance’ was more in her own mind’s eye than for the audience.

And by keeping all the violence – including the brutal murder of the Fifth Maid – off the stage, Frey force the audience to focus on the main characters as well as the music and thereby distilling the emotions created even further.

Even the set was suggestive. The decorative balcony, the clothes of the main characters were reminiscent of the era of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Yet it was clearly a home in transition. The hole in the wall where Elektra concealed herself, the spare paneling against the wall and piled on the floor indicated to me the final stages of redecoration. it was as if they were trying remove any evidence of Agamemnon himself but ultimately had failed. For above their heads was the motto Justitia fundamentem regnorum – loosely translated as ‘Justice is the foundation of kingship’. An all too ominous aide memoire – none of them could neither escape the murder committed nor, with the accompanying lion’s head motif of the house of Atreus above it the spectre of Agamemnon himself.

And while the lighting was for the most part simple there was a single moment of breathtaking beauty – that moment when Orest first appears. Suddenly the house is dark except for a single beam of moonlight cascading into the house from one side which – for whatever reason – reminded me of the light in the Secessionsgebäude in Vienna.

Yet for all this, at no point did the production overpower the music making. Rather it added to the whole as an equal partner.

And it was this equilibrium between all the parts – singers, players, conductor and director – which made this Elektra so magnificent and memorable.

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