Thursday, September 23, 2010

Death in Mycenae

Last night, PGB and I visited the Deutsche Oper where I was covering the performance for Opera Magazine and Place de l'Opera. My review will be published in the Dutch language, so I include it here (alas, without photos) in English:

"It was in 2007 that the Deutsche Oper presented, for the first time, its operatic Atreid double-bill – the Cassandra of Gnecchi (1905) and the Elektra of Strauss (1909). It was, I think, an inspired pairing, for not only are the two short operas linked intimately by their subject matter, they are also linked opera-historically: a certain amount of ink has been spilled over the question as to whether the celebrated Strauss helped himself rather too liberally to the ideas and even the musical sounds of the earlier Italian piece. While Elektra went on to establish for itself a place in the basic repertoire, the opera of the ‘wealthy amateur’ Gnecchi was culpably squeezed from the stage, but the Deutsche Oper’s presentation of the two works, side by side, and pointedly connected in their design and staging, has been a major part of what must undoubtedly be considered its rehabilitation. If Elektra is worthy of its place on the operatic heights – and, of course, it is – then the admittedly less complex and less skilled Cassandra (compressed into a short one-acter, at less than 50 pages and minutes) is definitely worthy of more than a small foothold on those same heights. And, if its ‘raison de revivre’ is as a kind of prologue to Elektra, maybe that is only justice.

I’m not one to bother about who did what to whom back in the 1900s: my only care is, is Cassandra a good piece of music theatre? And about that I think there can be no doubt. Its atmospheric prologue for baritone and chorus, the lush love scene of Klytemnaestra and Aegisthus, the thoroughly winning and even moving return of Agamemnon, and the prophetic Cassandra’s climactic scena are all painted in ringingly colourful music, which reminds one as often of Puccini as it does of Strauss, and the libretto moves the story along, through its little series of set pieces, with praiseworthy force and briskness.
Sparely and extremely effectively staged by Kirsten Harms, against a soaring but imperfect Mycenaean-gold-panelled background, it is played this season with a principal cast made up – with the exception of the splendidly baritonic Markus Brück (Aegisthus), who tonight doubled excitingly in extremis as the Prologue – of young American vocalists. Julia Benzinger sang strongly in the title-role, although occasionally drowned out in her lower register by Donald Runnicles’ expansive orchestra, and Gaston Rivero (for some reason, dressed as what seemed to be Spiderman) produced some lovely tenor tones, stalwart yet sweet, in the part of the doomed King. However, it was the stylish Takasha Meshé Kizart, as a Klytemnaestra in a little black frock and teetering heels, wielding a slaughtered sacrificial goat in one hand and a bloody axe in the other, and singing with an opulently colourful and thoroughly dramatic soprano, who clearly won the audience’s vote. And mine. Somehow, last night, I really felt the opera should have been entitled Klytemnaestra.

While Cassandra has languished, Elektra has been produced hundreds and hundreds of times, and all sorts of stagings and visuals have been imposed upon it. Kirsten Harms follows through in the successful style established in the first opera -- the towering gold walls with their grim (if clunky) window, in the eerie light of which the deadly indoor action of the night can be seen taking place, the spookily stylish black frocks, the omnipresent axe and, when Orestes becomes king, he gets the Spiderman costume. It is an extremely effective staging, which – by its lack of frills and foolish ‘ideas’ -- focuses attention firmly and felicitously on the characters and their story. Although I’m not wholly sure why everyone was bogged down in an enormous sandpit, unless it was to suggest that their appalling lives were one enormous effort.

The experienced and powerful Eva Johannson as a blonde Elektra (had she been bleached since the forepiece?) started the evening a little rustily, but she grew steadily in voice through the night, and by the time Orestes turned up she was singing gloriously. She turned on some beautiful gentler tones in the recognition scene, and every imaginable ounce of swelling strength in the final scenes of the drama. The muscly orchestra, which had given no quarter all evening, was utterly vanquished by her searing singing.
Julia Juon as Klytemnaestra looked happily less, on stage, like the Sunset Boulevard-style Katisha the opera’s posters had suggested, and she sang her nightmarish music most effectively – especially once she got down off the scenery and on to the front of the stage. She spared us the too facile ‘wicked witch’ acting often imposed on the part, and made the Queen, agreeably, into a believable woman. This could, indeed, have been the lovely, amorous Klytemnaestra of Gnecchi’s opera in her tortured older age.

My abiding memory of my first Covent Garden Elektra, more than 40 years ago, is not of the Elektra (Shuard) nor the Klytemnaestra (Resnik) but of a glorious Chrysothemis (Tarres). Manuela Uhl, I reckon, deserves to be rated at that same high level. In a role which can be two-dimensional dramatically, she acted excitingly, unfussily and convincingly and she produced a flow of magnificent sounds and phrases in her singing. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Chrysothemis and her music, but this, for me, was the performance of the night.

Elsewhere, the men did the little bits Strauss allows to the men efficiently, the ballet (were those furies? waves?) accompanied Elektra effectively in her dance of death, and the ever swooping black-clad maids, like so many gossipy crows, played their part in the drama to good purpose. Even though it was quite odd to see Cassandra, apparently reincarnated, amongst their number.

However, as splendidly directed, designed and performed as the Deutsche Oper Elektra is, the real interest of this programme has to lie in the less familiar Cassandra and in the idea of playing the two works together. Half a row of people next to me thought so: they had evidently come only for Cassandra and they left after the first opera.
So ‘was it a good idea to do this opera? and to do it as a prologue to Elektra?’. My answer is, in both cases, a very decided ‘yes’. Especially when it is done so very well. A grand evening at the opera.

PS: A couple of notes. (1) Sacrifical goats should not be abandoned (when their effect has worn off), centre stage at the footlights where star baritones can trip over them in mid-aria. (2) Please, when will designers produce a convincing stage corpse? The Agamemnon tumbled from the butcher’s window -- not even in his Spiderman red – made us laugh at a truly inopportune moment."

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