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Richard Lawrence
Gramophone, September 2013

STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (NTSC) OA1046D
STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7082D

Herbert Wernicke’s 1987 Munich production was restaged in Baden-Baden by Bettina Göschl. It is visually impressive…There are fine performances all round, especially from conductor Christian Thielemann… © 2013 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, November 2011

Linda Watson has a rich tone, excellent phrasing, and an evenness to her production that stands her in good stead in this very testing role…

…Manuela Uhl is an effective Chrysothemis, with ample reserves of power, her lighter tone making for good contrast with Watson…Christian Thielemann conducts with an ear to clarifying the opera’s textures, while providing energy and balance.

Wernicke’s direction and sets, and Henschel’s extraordinary Klytämnestra, offer more than sufficient compensation…worth treasuring.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, June 2011

Is there an opera as spine-chilling and heart-rending as Elektra? Maybe there is and if so I haven’t yet seen it. Strauss himself also seems to have seen no way to continue in this direction. Elektra became a dead-end and when he returned from darkness and desperation two years later he had moved to the sunny side of the street—or almost anyway—with the high society comedy Der Rosenkavalier. It was a success and it was this more accessible road that Strauss took during his operatic life—to the dismay of some avant-gardists who had seen the composer as a figure-head of early 20th century modernism. I do have a soft spot for Rosenkavalier and I don’t mind seeing the following operas either but Elektra grabs me by the throat in a way that is abominable but still enticing.

This production, originally created for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 1997, gripped me in the same way as the recent Stockholm production did. And there are similarities, but even more so with the previous Stockholm production…: sparse sets but evocative lighting, no props. Like the recent Stockholm production red is the symbolic colour—revenge. Yes, there is a staircase and there is a prop: again as in Stockholm Elektra carries an axe, the weapon with which her father Agamemnon was murdered. The lighting isn’t flattering for the characters; facial expressions become grotesque through the black shadows.

Whereas one in the theatre is fairly distanced from the action—though in Stockholm one felt drawn into it by the surge of the music and the acting—in this video realization Andreas Morell works very much with close-ups and thus automatically one is caught in the middle of the proceedings. There is always a risk that the video producer wants to point out something else than I want to see, but in so concentrated a drama as Elektra there are mostly clear-cut choices and one is—like it or not—caught from the outset. It says a lot, however, for the magic of the Stockholm production, that even in a seat fifteen metres from the stage one felt totally engulfed by the action.

The singing in Stockholm in mid-December 2009 was terrific and here in Baden-Baden just a month and a half later the vocal quality is hardly less impressive. Linda Watson has for the last decade been one of the leading sopranos in the hochdramatische Fach and she is formidable. Intense, fearless, brilliant. Jane Henschel’s Klytämnestra is another superb singing-actor, insinuating and sarcastic. And she sings with a golden tone that totally belies her age. Manuela Uhl has also made Chrysothemis something of a speciality, singing with silvery yet intense tone. Albert Dohmen, one of the foremost exponents of Wotan, may look more like a bank clerk than a Greek hero in his black suit, but he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and he sings powerfully. It is uplifting to find that René Kollo, well past seventy, has retained so much of his voice, considering all the exhausting Wagner roles he has been singing for so many years. His Aegisth is a jovial character in white dinner-jacket. It seems, in other words, that the men in this production are in present time while the women remain in ancient times. The symbolism in this contradiction eludes me—but no matter: this is a terrific Elektra, conducted with the required intensity by Christian Thielemann. I will without doubt return to it again for pleasure—well, pleasure is not really the proper word for Elektra, but you see what I mean—and that’s recommendation enough.

Parterre Box, February 2011

Is it possible for a performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra to be exciting without an exciting Elektra? It of course depends on your priorities and expectations, which will ultimately determine whether such a performance, as preserved on this DVD from Baden-Baden is for you.

Linda Watson’s first assumption of the punishing role of Elektra (she learned it only eight weeks prior to this production) is admirable for her scrupulous musicianship, command of the text, and the regality she brings to the role.

In collaboration with Christian Thielemann, she finds many phrases on which to lavish unusually refined lyric beauty, in a work often given heavy-handed treatment. It seems, however, as though this lyrical approach is not necessarily a choice for Watson, who is unable to approach any note above the staff with true dramatic attack, always opting for a hesitant scoop which inevitably results in an unfocused, wobbly sound.

This hesitancy makes it quite obvious that she is thinking very hard about her singing and never truly inhabits the character fully, opting for restraint where the score calls for malevolent abandon. Thankfully, the rest of her mature, sizeable voice is largely secure and not unlovely, though it is not for those prone to motion sickness.

The rest of the cast ranges from satisfactory to very good. The Chrysothemis, Manuela Uhl, has a sympathetic stage presence but her shrill upper register often grates. Jane Henschel really sings Klytamnestra, and by virtue of her wide palette of vocal expression is able to portray her shifting moods, from desperate and paranoid to venomous and cruel more fully than the typical aged diva often cast in this part. There is still more than a fair bit of campy mugging, but it does not come across as intended to distract from sub-par singing. Albert Dohmen sings Orest with grave authority, deploying his charcoal bass-baritone with chilling urgency and tenderness in his reunion with his sister. René Kollo makes a cameo as a rather bumbling, elderly Aegisth.

Herbert Wernicke’s straightforward staging, while not revelatory or especially creative, is nonetheless effective. The production, dominated by sharp angles and stark colors, is spare and simple. This aesthetic extends to the largely static blocking. A large wall which rotates on its diagonal axis looms ominously over the stage, at times opening to reveal a large freestanding staircase, and closing to claustrophobically restrict the action to the apron. The limited interaction and large distances between the characters highlights their isolation, and the lack of eye contact between them gives a sense that even in dialogue they are not really communicating at all.

The carefully choreographed progression of movement and physical contact helps to structure Strauss’s long scenes, so that when there is a burst of action it is all the more climactic—a release of the static tension that had built up. Wernicke makes a huge mistake, however, in ending the opera with Elektra slinking off the stage after having impaled herself with the axe. We are left with a meaningless, uninteresting stage picture of Orest standing on the staircase with one arm outstretched and Chrysothemis at his feet, looking as though she has just taken a hit of some really strong stuff. Were something more compelling offered, the choice not to have Elektra onstage at the climactic ending of Elektra might have seemed justified. (It should be noted that Wernicke is dead and that it has been left up to Bettina Goschl to ostensibly reproduce his wishes faithfully.)

The glory of this performance is Thielemann’s vivid, characterful account of Strauss’s score, full of expressive detail and ethereal beauty. His lightness of touch and precision convey its relentlessness through clarity and vitality of articulation, rather than unremitting bombast. This serves his thrillingly-paced and idiosyncratic reading of the finale especially well. From a purely orchestral standpoint, it is worth acquiring just to hear the details and inner harmonies he is able to tease out of the Munich Philharmonic, thanks to his ear for balance and transparency.

Some may feel his approach too symphonic, yet there is no lack of vivid theatricality, most notably in his spiky treatment of the irascible Elektra theme which pierces the score throughout. The level of excitement generated by the orchestra is rarely matched by the vocalism, and those expecting to hear the intensity of a Nilsson, Jones, or Behrens will be sorely disappointed. For some, at least, Thielemann’s individual, polished, and thrilling conducting will be reason enough to acquire this DVD right away.

Ronni Reich, February 2011

Slivers of bright red slice through an all-black set, and then the backdrop spins, so that the entire stage is drenched in crimson. For the dark and bloody story of Elektra, Herbert Wernicke’s Festspielhaus Baden-Baden production takes an austere approach that won’t win points for subtlety but captures the single-minded malevolence of its main characters in few broad, bold strokes.

In Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s telling of the ancient Greek myth, the action begins following the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth (the names are the German versions used in the opera).

The psyche of the grief-stricken, vengeance-bent title character provides a canvas for the composer to unleash fierce roilings of low strings, rapid, bloodthirsty brass battle calls, frenzied orchestral swirls and passages of lovesick keening. Christian Thielemann leads the Müncher Philharmoniker in a blistering account of Strauss at his best with an intricate, imaginative, expressionistic score.

As Elektra, soprano Linda Watson is disconcertingly pitiable as she sings of her devotion to her siblings in music that vaguely resembles the sweetness of “Der Rosenkavalier,” only with sickly harmonic interjections, deep foreboding rumblings, and careening, high-pitched winds and strings underscoring her words.

If the role sometimes seems a strain vocally, the character’s exhaustion is apparent. She describes herself as a living corpse and Watson’s convincing delivery foreshadows her end.

Soprano Jane Henschel is a fitting target for her rage as a Klytämnestra, the picture of overindulgence in a red turban, glittering gold jewelry and an embellished red and gold cape.

Henschel turns in a performance that is pitch-perfect not only in terms of her lustrous, commanding voice but also in every eerie expression. The many close-ups and set-flattering angles of the camera when operas are recorded (or telecast) make a case for why simplistic productions like Wernicke’s are so popular—scenes showing the full stage can look oddly bare, but there is definite appeal to viewing an actress like Henschel at close range with little background distraction.

Albert Dohmen brings a handsome bass-baritone to the role of Oreste. The suspense, fanfare and then swooning passages as Elektra recognizes her brother are among the many orchestral high points of the DVD.

Most intriguing, though, is the sole character to break dramatically from Wernicke’s color palette. Clad in a white robe, Elektra’s virginal sister Chrysothemis innocently yearns for love and refuses to take part in her siblings’ sinister plans. Manuela Uhl brings a bright, dulcet soprano of startling power to the role.

It is one of Wernicke’s most effective dramatic devices that at the close of the opera, as Chrysothemis calls out for her murderous brother, she appears wearing her mother’s jewels, as though ready to step into the harrowing role of family matriarch.

Frank Behrens
Brattleboro Reformer, February 2011

STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (NTSC) OA1046D
REIMANN, A.: Medea (Vienna State Opera, 2010) (NTSC) 101551

By a coincidence, new videos of two operas based on Greek tragedies have appeared in the same month. Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (1909) is on the Opus Arte label and features a 2010 performance from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden with Christian Thielemann conducting. The other, on an ArtHaus DVD, is Aribert Reimann’s “Medea” in a 2010 performance at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Michael Boder. [In this article, the German spellings of the Greek names will be used.]

Both works center on a woman driven to the utmost limits of human endurance and bent on a horrible revenge. Elektra lives only for the day when her brother Orestes will return to murder their mother Klytamnestra, who had murdered their father Agamemnon. Medea has given up all for love of Jason, who had stolen the Golden Fleece from her father. Once back in Greece, Jason decides to marry a Corinthian princess, take the children and send Medea into exile.

Stories like this demand powerful music. After experimenting with a new orchestral sound for his “Salome” (another female you would not like to meet), Strauss went a step further with “Elektra.” But the score is entirely dramatic and seems to fit the action and emotions. A leitmotif based on the word “Agamemnon” opens the work and is heard at crucial points. The effeminacy of Aegisth is clearly underlined by the bouncy little theme that accompanies his first entrance. (His stage time is very short!)

The score for “Medea” is more like a movie soundtrack. As the program notes point out, Reimann abandons any sense of beat and lets the music flow around the action. This might be very well, but the effect is that it all sounds the same, regardless of what is happening on stage. The declamatory style of singing so beloved of recent composers (could they give us a beautiful melody if they wanted to?) will strike some as a group of actors shouting at each other at the top of their vocal range.

This works fine for Medea, who is almost always at the end of her patience—and sanity. But when every one else on stage is in the same flight path, it does become (well, let me say it) boring. Some relief comes when the young Princess sings; she does sound like a classic Grecian Sandra Dee. But it is also practically a “vocalise” in which arbitrary syllables are given multiple notes.

The set of “Elektra” consists of a huge black parallelogram with a blood red background peeking through. When the shape is rotated out of sight, the rest of the stage is all red, with a silly staircase leading nowhere. “Medea” takes place in a sort of bombed out-building site that suits the mood of the action.

Both productions start with the women dressed in an approximation of Greek costume. And then—as is absolutely required in opera today—the male chorus of “Elektra” show up in modern garb, with one dressed in a clownish top hat and tails. “Medea” also has the women dressed in period costume. Then enter Jason in modern fatigues. And later Orestes in a dark suit. Why? Timelessness? Saving money on effective costumes? They are all doing it? The audience didn’t seem to mind and I read that this production was the hottest ticket in town.

Finally, a very touchy subject. Elektra (Linda Watson) is done no favors by her close-ups. And for a character who eats her meals from a dish along with the dogs, she has not lost any weight (to be tactful). Klytamnestra (Jane Henschel) is simply obese; but that fits the character of a totally decadent Queen. On the other hand, Medea (Marlis Petersen) is very sexy and believable in the role.

One last point. Hugo Hoffmannsthal’s libretto for “Elektra” sticks pretty closely to the Sophocles play. Reimann based his libretto for “Medea” on the Euripides version with deletions and with additions taken from an earlier German treatment of the legend. Much is made of the Golden Fleece in the opera, although it is only alluded to in the play.

So there we are. Two works with so many similarities—Greek tragic sources, idiosyncratic scores, mixed costuming, surreal staging—and yet so different in effect because of casting and (in the case of the videos) camera work.

Richard Fairman
Gramophone, February 2011

STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (NTSC) OA1046D
STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7082D

Thielemann’s orchestra upstages but never overwhelms the singers

The outstanding performance here comes from the pit. True to form, Christian Thielemann sees Elektra as a vantage-point for looking back over the 19th-century Romanticism rather than forward to modern Expressionism. The orchestral sound he favours is founded on a luxurious tapestry of strings, overlaid by a massive onslaught of the brass at climaxes, and the whole grand conception is very well realised by the Munich Philharmonic. From time to time the pacing feels too laid back—Elektra’s scrabbling for the axe of vengeance is short on nervous energy—but otherwise this is a majestic performance that rises to heights of grandiloquence. Thanks either to Thielemann himself or the recording engineers, the singers have no trouble making themselves heard.

Productions of Elektra tend to be either indulgent displays of post-Freudian excess or stark and plain. Herbert Wernicke’s staging at Baden-Baden, dominated by a sliding black wall that opens up occasional gashes of light, belongs in category two. There is nothing controversial here, just a straightforward retelling of the myth that puts the singers centre stage. The clean lines and bold splashes of colour come across with striking clarity in this high-quality film.

Even in close-up, Linda Watson looks fully inside the character of Elektra. She starts the evening in rather wobbly voice, excusable in the face of such a taxing evening, and though she settles down later, neither steadiness nor intonation is ever quite ideal. Her strength is the all-embracing commitment she brings to her portrayal. Manuela Uhl’s voice is a touch too bright and thin at the top to qualify as the ideal Strauss lyric soprano but her defensive Chrysothemis suggests well the introverted younger sister. As Klytemnestra, Jane Henschel makes a grand entrance in regal red, apparently swathed in the Royal Opera House curtains, and offers impressive singing to half-whispered intimacy. Albert Dohmen is the businesslike Orest and René Kollo puts in a star cameo as Aegisth. In the absence of competition from the great singers of the past at their peak, this well-produced DVD will do nicely.

Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, January 2011

This DVD of Richard Strauss’ blood-drenched Greek tragedy was filmed in June of 2010 at Baden-Baden. This is a successful, almost clinical staging of the opera, staged by Herbert Wernicke without the usual gore and decay. Mr Wernicke’s set is stark and geometric, dominated by a giant rotating, black rectangle that turns on its diagonal axis to reveal bright hues. It’s like a Robert Wilson production, unhampered by awkward body movements.

In the opening monologue, soprano Linda Watson pushes her instrument to the absolute limit, and beyond. Elektra is a murderously difficult role, and this American soprano sings with a searing sound when at full voice over Strauss’ gigantic orchestra. Ms Watson achieves command of Strauss’ tricky waltz rhythms in the second part of the aria, and manages a full, powerful presence, never leaving the center of attention. She is sweet, even cloying in her scenes with Chrysothemis. Finally, she opens up her voice for an impressive “Recognition Scene” with Orest, raising her voice high against the (temporarily) lightened orchestration in a soaring arch of sound.

Klytaemnestra is played with a grandiose, Sunset Boulevard decadence by Jane Henschel. Strauss reserved his most difficult music for this mother-daughter confrontation, sinuous, ear-scraping orchestral figures that broke the limits of tonality and inspired many modern composers.

The confrontation is masterfully acted and powerfully sung, with impressive, almost growled low notes from Ms Henschel. Klytaemnestra’s scarlet-and-gold train is put to good use as a as a symbol of power and a surrogate bloodstain for the murder that is to come.

As Chrysothemis, the “good” sister embroiled in Elektra’s plan to avenge the murder of her father, Manuela Uhl makes a solid impression. Ms Uhl has a hard, bright instrument that is also taxed by the heavy orchestra. Emotionally, she is limited to fear and confusion, caught between her mother’s machinations and her sister’s raw blood lust, but those are the two central emotions of this weak character. One clever touch: after Klytaemnestra is axed, her younger daughter wastes no time in appropriating the baubles, charms and beads from the Queen’s corpse—effectively taking her mother’s place.

In an opera with three leading ladies, it is sometimes hard for the men to be noticed. Rene Kollo is Aegisth, the latest in a line of faded heldentenors to be led to the slaughter. Albert Dohmen is a powerful, if unemotional Orest, determined to kill his mother and steeled to the task at hand. This sturdy Wagner baritone does not have time to give much more information than that.

On the podium, Christian Thielemann shows great command of rhythm and Strauss’ rich orchestral detail. He leads the Munich Philharmonic with a light, airy touch, letting the orchestra waltz in demented triple time before letting the brass smash out great, slab-like chords. Mr Thielemann is a fine Strauss conductor, who follows the composer’s advice about Elektra: to conduct “as if it were by Mendelssohn: fairy music.”

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