[Doris Soffel als Clytemnestra in “Elektra”, Leipzig 2011.]
Three weeks ago (reviews take their time these days, with all the professor-chasing going on on the side), my-friend-the-dramaturg invited me up to Leipzig for the opening night of “Elektra”. I’ve rarely been so glad that his regular date was out of town because it was fantastic. And fantastic Strauss nights are not really something common in Leipzig, mostly because there is hardly any Strauss on the map.
Music director and future intendant Ulf Schirmer conducted the Gewandhaus orchestra and even without singing, it would have been a great night (of course it was even greater for the singing and for the way Schirmer kept the sound so transparent that you could hear all of it). Schirmer’s reading is alert, poignant and breathless. Instead of a compact sound, he goes for the multitude of details and offers startling clarity of a score I thought I knew backwards. Not just the Agamemnon calls or the dogs in the courtyard were there, but you could literally hear the wood lice scuttle across the stones. Although the most impressive thing might have been the reaction time and the discipline he showed in making a 16th note really just that and not a millisecond longer, resisting the dramatic rubati and dense Strauss sound so often heard.
Please, Leipzig, give us more Strauss under Schirmer. My mind is already going wild in trying to imagine what he could with a “Salome”.
The production is a Konwitschny reading originally staged for Kopenhagen and it has to be said once more that while pre-1800s repertory doesn’t seem to be his thing (I was underwhelmed by both of his recent Gluck pieces, though much of that blame goes to the scenery and costumes), his takes on 19th and 20th century repertory are still doors to new insights in the way that opera staging should be.
The private and the political are inseparably intertwined here: Konwitschny presents “Elektra” as the story of a family in a big salon with mirrored walls (a projected sky follows the moods of the scenes while a grand digital clock counts down to the murder) and a pristine white design sofa set.
Once more – like in “Lohengrin” and “Al gran sole” – Konwitschny works with the perspective of children. The evening is prefaced by a ten-minute mute scene (it pays off to be there early because it happens before the curtain goes up) of Agamemnon playing with his children, in a bathtub that will turn into THE bathtub. Elektra (perhaps now that Iphigenia is gone) is clearly his favorite, the most able and bravest, basking in her father’s attention. Young Orest tries to compete with her, while Chrysothemis, with a doll’s pram and swimmies, stays away from the games. At the end of the scene, Clytemnestra enters with Aegisth and while Orest and Chrysothemis run off, Elektra is still in the bathtub and sees her father getting slaughtered. Her scream in reaction turns into the first chord of the orchestra.
This Elektra is a traumatized child who wants her daddy back. Her experiences have made her slightly sociopathic, which leads to an odd closeness between her and Clytemnestra (their conversation is the highlight of the evening) – in some moments, they really look like mother and daughter, making the viewer wonder who Clytemnestra was before her husband sacrificed their eldest daughter, and whether Elektra would have done the same thing if she had been in the place of her mother.
The slaughtered Agamemnon in the bathtub remains onstage, sometimes pushed into a corner, sometimes rolled to the forefront by Elektra. The murdered husband and father just rises once, as he witnesses the hatred that has overcome his family while Clytemnestra and Elektra fight.
Orest, in perhaps the most lucid and unconventional reading of the evening, arrives on the scene unwilling to murder, fearful of his calling and trembling at the imminent nearness of it. His reluctance is mirrored perfectly in his “Ich muss hier warten.”
At this point, Konwitschny adds two twists to the plot: for one, the “old man” accompanying Orest is not old, but a representative of an obviously militarist regime who raised this little boy for revenge and brainwashed him into it. He takes away the archaic ax from Orest and presses a gun into his hand before he shoves a shaking Orest into the house.
And since regimes built on violence and vengeance end up as totalitarian tyrannies, Konwitschny visualizes this development in short order by having all the witnesses of the murder – the entire household, maidservants, cook and firefighter included – shot during Elektra’s final sequence that is overlaid by machine gun fire and bodies piling up on stage, with the sisters getting shot as well.
As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin delivered a very strong performance. She has previously been in Leipzig as Elsa and, if things in this world make sense, is clearly headed towards “Tannhäuser” Elisabeth and Sieglinde next – her tone is bright, gleaming and sizable, unstrained without any gaps or rough spots.
Tuomas Pursio (Leipzig ensemble) was impressive as the hesitant Orest who finds his old toy water gun in the bathtub and faces his happy childhood memories before he is sent off to kill his mother.
Among the smaller roles Ulrike Helzel (Deutsche Oper Berlin) stood out as the Aufseherin, as did, for her dark, velvety contralto sound and timbre, Claudia Huckle as first maidservant (my-friend-the-dramaturg said she’s under contract as a mezzo, but if that isn’t a contralto, I don’t know what is).
Janice Baird as Elektra is singing and acting her guts out, offering a gripping performance especially since she doesn’t stop at the stereotypical menacing prowl. Her body language is youthful and her biggest feat is the way she lets Elektra’s vulnerability shine through in the most unexpected moments, both vocally and scenically. This, for all the rage, is still the little girl who got hurt and who wants her family back. Her final scene still sounds fresh and especially the soaring, flexible top notes give the immediate association of many a Brünnhilde. I almost expected her to add a “Hojotoho” in between.
Queen of the Night, however, is Doris Soffel, who governs the stage with the curl of a fingertip. A glorious blend of Cruella DeVille, Ursula the Sea Witch and Sue Sylvester’s meaner, older sister, she could be a regular daytime soap matriarch who in between offering you a drink and chatting about jewelry will kill a servant or two without a blink. This is a singer who knows how to use her material to perfection. While her register changes aren’t flexible any longer and the sound needs a moment to fill up at times, Soffel knows how to work the part, with splendid diction, still ringing top notes and an impressive lower register. This is not your typical “Clytemnestra of a certain age” who falls back onto acting since the singing has reached its limits. The part is still well sung, but it’s Soffel’s stage presence that overpowers everyone and everything else.
In this production, it’s Clytemnestra who does a crazy dance, not Elektra. Elektra instead stands lost in the final carnage, left empty by the vengeance which didn’t mend her soul, either: Here it is Elektra herself who, after shots have wounded Clytemnestra, finishes the job with the axe, onstage. Clytemnestra sinks dead into the same bathtub where the body of the dead Agamemnon is still resting.
All in all, a fabulous interpretation, fabulously sung, especially by the three leading ladies, and bedded into an orchestral diction that makes one wish for much more Strauss in Leipzig. Remaining performances are June 13th (with Renée Morluc replacing Doris Soffel) and June 18th.
[Doris Soffel (Clytemnestra) and Janice Baird (Elektra) having a mother-daughter chat in Konwitschny’s “Elektra” production, Leipzig 2011. – Photo Credit: Andreas Birkigt/Oper Leipzig]