Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Regie?

August 13, 2010

Iréne Theorin and Waltraud Meier in Elektra
Photo: Hermann und Clärchen Baus/Salzburg Festival 2010

Following the return of Claus Guth's formerly controversial Don Giovanni in Salzburg, I was anticipating what boo-inducing surprise Nikolaus Lenhoff’s new production of Strauss’ Elektra might have in store. Perhaps one of the opera companies most associated with the Regietheater movement over the last thirty years, the Salzburg festival has been there and done that when it comes to the unusual. But sitting through Elektra in its second performance here on Thursday night one might be excused for thinking the days of stage-director induced scandale here are long, long gone.

Lenhoff’s vision of this Greek tragedy is so tame, it wouldn’t look out of place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera – even prior to Peter Gelb. In fact take out a brief upstage appearance by Klytamenstra’s body suspended from above in a bloody abattoir, you’d pretty much have the 1992 Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose production last revived at the Met for Susan Bullock and Deborah Voigt in 2008. Just tilt the set back and to the left at a more rakish angle and, voilà, you’ve got about 20 years of opera history. The large empty concrete hall serves as little more than a place for the principals to stand and sing while staring off in the distance and avoiding any falls into any of the pits in the stage floor.

Ironically, virtually everything else about the show is near perfection. Iréne Theorin sings the title role bracingly and is well matched with her Klytamnestra, Waltraud Meier, and Chrysothemis, Eva-Maria Westbroek. And in a bit of luxury casting, René Pape sings the brief but critical role of Orest. All faced some challenges in the listless staging. An excellent sounding Westbroek was evidently instructed to enter and exit in her best simpering Carol Brady impersonation. Having seen her give such excellent acting performances in other settings, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t her idea. Meier was announced as having “lumbago” prior to the curtain, which would restrict her movement even though she would still be able to sing. And sing she did, giving one of those sterling performances that it seems only she can, back pain or not. Theorin was very strong despite her gothic-influenced makeup and her time in the stage floor’s many trenches.

But the most amazing element for me was the incredible performance of the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Daniele Gatti. Now I know that Gatti is a bit of a polarizing figure, loved deliriously be some and reviled by others. For Elektra he led one no-holds-barred dramatic, loud, and fairly aggressive orchestral performance. Undoubtedly any lesser cast would have been overwhelmed without a second thought. But this was not a problem here. So tame as the evening was as theater, there were more than a few sizable consolations. And at least for tonight, the notion of “Regietheater” couldn’t have been any further away from the reality of the moment.


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