Strauss, Elektra

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By Bernard Jacobson

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Lawrence Renes, dir. Chris Alexander, set designer Wolfram Skalicki, costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess, lighting designer Marcus Doshi, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 18, 19, & 29. 10. 2008 (BJ)

It is too easy, in discussing Strauss’s Elektra, to stress the sheer aggressiveness of the score at the expense of other equally important qualities. From a composer who had already established his modernist and psychologically penetrative credentials in Salome, the drama of Elektra’s obsession with avenging her father Agamemnon’s death naturally drew clamorous orchestral writing and dissonant superimpositions of mutually contradictory chords that grind terrifyingly on the ear.

Yet Hofmannsthal’s and Strauss’s Elektra is not merely a violently inclined madwoman–her madness, and her lust for vengeance, are the twisted results of a love for her lost father and a capacity and longing for family happiness that have been unhinged by the trauma of that father’s murder by his wife Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth. (I give the characters’ names in their German versions for consistency’s sake.) This shattering experience, intensifying the “Elektra complex” posited by Jung as a daughter-father counterpart to Freud’s “Oedipus complex,” is just one psychologically significant element in the plot – Freud’s emphasis on the importance of dreams, too, is evoked by the nightmares that have poisoned Klytämnestra’s sleep and also torture her daughter.

If it had been merely bloodcurdling, Seattle Opera’s new Elektra would have been a less astounding achievement. What this stunning production managed to do, without shortchanging the violence of the action or the uncompromising vehemence of Richard Strauss’ music, was to reveal the humane and lyrical side of both in their full glory. Yes, the composer of Elektra was the composer of Salome; but very soon he would be the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, and you could hear that in the warmth and lyricism that, together with the moments of gruesome discord, emerged from the pit.


On a grandly scaled and appropriately grim set designed by the late Wolfram Skalicki (and seen when the opera was last done here in 1996), director Chris Alexander gave us a drama of rich psychological penetration, worthy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and of its source in the play by Sophocles. Meanwhile, Lawrence Renes achieved the feat of drawing gloriously vital and seemingly unrestrained playing from the large orchestra without ever drowning the voices. The only exception was one moment near the end when Aegisth, being murdered offstage, was barely able to make himself heard.

Such a triumphant result would hardly have been possible without a cast of spectacular musical and dramatic gifts, and such a cast was happily on hand. In her West Coast debut, New York–born Janice Baird played an Elektra whose fundamental nobility was evident from the start, and poured a stream of frequently ravishing tone over what may well be the most taxing role in the soprano repertoire. Elektra’s vocal line is not a million miles distant from that of Ariadne in a later Strauss opera, or for that matter of Wagner’s Brünnhilde. Being largely founded on traditional tonal triads, it has a rooted quality very different from the tortured angularity of much modern music for the voice. It is the orchestra that for much of the time fulminates around her. This conflict justly reflects Elektra’s embattled isolation in a hostile world – and when she is reunited with her long-exiled brother Orest, the vocal and orchestral elements aptly coalesce in a newfound, gleamingly sensuous (and Straussian) unanimity.

The Orest in the opening-night cast, New Orleans–born bass–baritone Alfred Walker, made a sonorously impressive company debut. British mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright’s tormented, vicious, yet pitiable and curiously dignified Klytämnestra was sung with opulent, precisely focused tone, yet also with a taut intensity that was indeed bloodcurdling. This too was an important local debut, as was that of German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier, whose sympathetic Chrysothemis revealed a rich and powerful voice that could presage a career of major proportions if she can rectify a degree of tightness at the top of the range.

A more familiar figure locally, tenor Richard Margison from Victoria, British Columbia, was an excellent Aegisth, and could hardly be blamed for not vocally penetrating the orchestral maelstrom with his offstage cries for help. The five maids and a variety of court hangers–on were all strongly cast. Melanie Taylor Burgess contributed new costumes that admirably blended antiquity with colorful poetic suggestion. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design, effective throughout, offered a truly gooseflesh thrill when Orest’s longed-for arrival was preceded by a looming shadow, succeeded in turn by a sudden liberating illumination of the whole stage.

Seattle’s tightly packed performance schedule necessitates double casting of the bigger roles. The second cast – I don’t like to use the accepted “gold cast/silver cast” terminology, for you can often find gold threads among the silver – had a hard act to follow, given that opening night had offered as compelling and indeed thrilling a performance of this challenging masterpiece as one could hope to witness. The matinee on the following day was excellent too, if not comparably revelatory.

Elektra must be on stage, uninterrupted, from just a few minutes after curtain-up, and singing for much of that time. Jayne Casselman started well. But she could not rival the voluptuous apparent ease with which Janice Baird had sailed over the complex orchestral texture, and as the performance wore on, she tired considerably, sounding vocally exhausted by the end. Luretta Bybee’s Klytämnestra, sung and acted skillfully enough, was an impressive portrayal by ordinary standards, but not by the standard Rosalind Plowright had set in bringing to life before our eyes a creature at once depraved and poignantly regal.

Life is unfair. One reason why this performance worked less well than the first lay in the very strength of its Chrysothemis. Carolyn Betty, acting no less sympathetically than Irmgard Vilsmaier, deployed a voice more confidently and evenly produced across its entire range. And if you have a Chrysothemis who is vocally stronger than her Elektra, the whole vocal balance of power is damaged, and with it inevitably the dramatic balance also. As Aegisth, a part hardly substantial enough to call for double casting, Thomas Harper was at least the equal of his predecessor, while in the more demanding role of Orest Alfred Walker repeated his dignified and richly sung first-night success.

Those who saw this Elektra with the second cast had an enjoyable experience; with Janice Baird and Rosalind Plowright on stage, it was an unforgettable one. So wonderful, indeed, was it all that I returned for a third immersion the following week, when Irmgard Vilsmaier had already made substantial steps in the direction of greater vocal evenness, and Ms. Baird and Ms. Plowright were in even more glorious voice than on the first night. Chris Alexander and Lawrence Renes certainly had much going in their favor. But they must still be warmly congratulated for welding their constituent elements into one of the most comprehensively moving and beautiful opera productions that I can remember experiencing.

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Rossini, Matilde di Shabran

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By Melanie Eskenazi

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

(London Premiere) Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Directed by Mario Martone. Covent Garden, 23.10.2008  (ME)?


??Aleksandra Kurzak (Matilde) and Juan Diego Flórez  (Corradino) ?

What was that, sir? Alma rea! Perché ti’involi? Fuggi invan gli sdegni miei? I think that was what Juan Diego Flórez sang as he hurtled down the very noisy double helix staircase – well, to be honest, I know that was what he sang, but I didn’t hear it because his first lines were drowned out by applause. Groan. Took me back, I can tell you – right back to Wolverhampton Grand Theatre about 30 years ago, to a creaky old Priestley production in which Joan Plowright starred. When the diva tottered on, the grateful populace broke into clapping, and a bow was taken before a single line was uttered. Thankfully our hero last night continued singing, but I hope the practice of ‘welcoming’ applause may be encouraged to stay in the provinces where it belongs. Needless to say, most of us were at the Royal Opera House last night  to hear Flórez – don’t tell me that three and three quarter hours of relatively obscure Rossini would sell out otherwise, and he did not disappoint even if he was not at his world-beating best on this first night.

??Matilde di Shabran, ossia Bellezza, e cuor di ferro (Matilde of Shabran, or Beauty with a Heart of Iron) is a ‘melodrama giocoso’ seeking to bridge the gap between opera seria and opera buffa and in many ways it feels quite Shakespearian – think echoes of Twelfth Night mixed with shades of The Taming of the Shrew, except that in this case it’s more ‘The Taming of the Tyrant.’ As well as the main plotline of the feisty Matilde’s crusade to tame and sweeten the martial Corradino, aided by his doctor Aliprando and the itinerant poet Isidoro, there is a touching sub-plot concerning the imprisoned nobleman Edoardo and the fate of his elderly father, both strands seamlessly interwoven in both Rossini’s music and Mario Martone’s production. Apart from the noisy staircase, Martone and the associate director Daniela Schiavone have done the composer proud: that staircase looks beautiful and not only allows elegant placing of the principals and much near-farcical action but also forms a crucial central focus, directing the eye towards mysterious shadows and recesses. The movement is exceptionally well drilled (always a necessity with Rossini) and even the chorus joins in the somewhat over-the-top antics – not to be deplored when the singers are given such sympathetic direction as they are here.


??The part of Corradino is the one with which Flórez shot to fame in 1996 after standing in for Bruce Ford, and of course he has made it his own. I’m always surprised when critics say that he can’t act – he is in fact a graceful and genuinely funny stage animal, and this part gives him the chance to be something other than milquetoast of Nemorino or Tonio. I’ve noted in many past reviews – in fact I think I may have been the first critic to say so – that the brilliance of his coloratura and his phenomenal breath control are excelled, if that is possible, by the elegance, refinement and tenderness with which he sings the quieter, more lyrical passages. We were treated to plenty of those on this occasion, all wonderfully sung, and it was only in the more dramatic, forceful music that I felt him to be holding back just a little. ‘Ah, capisco, non parlate’ the duet with Matilde, was the moment when he really found his best form, and from then on he produced streams of silvery, lucent sound.

??Reviewing her house debut as Aspasia in the Royal Opera’s 2005 Mitridate, Re di Ponto, I wrote of Aleksandra Kurzak that she had ‘a vibrant personality, a really outstanding voice with a confident ring and mastery of the highest notes’ – perfect for the title role in Matilde, and here she managed the challenging feat of not being upstaged by the star tenor, singing with fearless accuracy, colourful phrasing and even tenderness when required. Both she and Flórez are the antithesis of can belto, with a sound made up of seemingly effortless production allied to an intimacy with language which is a joy to hear. Her final big scene, where Matilde triumphs in her romantic victory over Corradino, Tace la Tromba alterra, Spira tranquillità was as stunning a display of vocal acrobatics as I’ve heard in a long time.?


??Vinco (Aliprando)  Flórez  (Corradino) Lepore( Ginardo) and Kurzak (Matilde) ? 

The two principals were supported by a strong cast, with Alfonso Antoniozzi’s Isidoro endearing in histrionic terms although he did not always shape the phrases as fully as one might hope. Marco Vinco’s Aliprando made the most of his status as the one into whose arms the hero scuttles whenever he feels a sniffle coming on, and he was another ROH debutant of whom I expect to hear more, with a confident stage presence and a finely cultivated bass-baritone voice. Vesselina Kasarova was a convincing Edoardo, sympathetic in his / her plight and producing wonderfully burnished sounds throughout most of the three octave range of the rôle, although some of those low notes tended towards the booming. Enkelejda Shkosa was a striking Contessa, and there were strong contributions from Mark Beesley as Lopez and Carlo Lepore as Corradino’s servant. Indeed, coupled with the excellent choral singing, this was one of the few occasions when one can say that a Covent Garden production, despite the usual quota of ‘stars,’ really felt like a proper company show.??

Of course the production is not new – it comes to us from Pesaro so there has been time to achieve the required intimacy, and that sense was further highlighted by Carlo Rizzi’s lively, affectionate account of the score. There were times when the playing was just a shade too loud, but overall this was music-making at the level of the singing and the production, that is to say the very highest. If you haven’t booked, it is well worth trying for a day ticket for one of the five remaining performances.??

Pictures © Catherine Ashmore

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Second Opinion. Mozart, Idomeneo

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By Harvey Steiman

Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.

Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Conductor, Donald Runnicles, San Francisco Opera House, San Francisco, 28.10.2008 (HS)??

Idamante – Daniela Mack (mezzo)?
Ilia – Genia Kuhmeier (soprano)
?Idomeneo – Kurt Streit (tenor)?
Abace – Alek Shrader (tenor)?
Elettra – Iano Tamar (soprano)???

San Francisco Opera has a short but distinguished history with Mozart’s long-neglected opera. The most recent performances, in 1999,  featured Gusta Windbergh, Barbara Bonney (spelled by Anna Netrebko), Vasselina Kasarova and Carol Vaness, and they were memorable. A young Karita Mattila starred as Ilia in 1989 and Maria Ewing paired off with Carol Neblett in 1977.??

In his final year as SFO’s music director, Donald Runnicles conducts the current performances with refreshing verve and attention to detail, drawing muscular playing from the orchestra without losing the essential Mozartean refinement. A good, if not quite stellar, cast sings with purity and clarity if not as much panache as the relatively inert story requires. In the end, the tale takes a back seat to the sheer beauty of the music, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.??

Robert R. Reilly delineates the narrative in excellent detail in his review of an earlier performance than the one heard on October 28, the fifth of six. By his account and others, British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Idamante stole the spotlight, but she missed this performance with a back injury. Stepping in for her was the cover, Argentina-born Daniela Mack, a first-year Adler Fellow in the company’s young singers development program. Mozart wrote this role for a castrato, and Coote has the vocal heft and deep contralto timbre to deliver a reasonable alternative to that sound. Mack owns a more youthful look and sound, her high-lying mezzo more notable for its grace and flexibility than power.??


Power, in fact, was the one element missing from this vocal cast. Tenor Kurt Streit, a consummate Mozartean, often sounded supremely noble, even anguished, in a vocally beautiful performance, but not heroic. Elettra is the other role that calls for some hard edges—think Queen of the Night here, without the requirement for extra-high notes, or perhaps Elvira, among other Mozart soprano roles. The Georgian soprano Iano Tamar, making her company debut, presented a voice with an appealing softness in scenes in which she tries to ingratiate herself with Idamante but she came up short in the fury department, a requirement for her Act III aria, “D’Oreste, d’Aiace.”??

That said, the vocal rewards were many. Recitatives, though extensively trimmed, still lacked the incisiveness to justify their length, but arias, duets and ensembles sparkled, even from the smaller roles. Among the highlights were several from Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier as Ilia, also making her SFO debut. Her supplication, “Se il padre perdei,” was a highlight of Act II. “Zeffiretti lusinghieri,” a delicate, serene scene-setter that opens Act III, and the ensuing duet, “S’io non moro a questi accenti,” with Idamante, a gorgeous succession of Mozartean thirds and sixths, established Kuhmeier as this evening’s vocal star on the whistle-clean intonation and silky texture of her singing.

??Streit could add his noble, beautifully paced and vocally refined “Torna la pace” to a highlight reel of his own. And as Idomeneo’s confidante, Arbace, Alek Shrader, another Adler Fellow, made a strong impression with a clear, high tenor, especially in “Se il tuo duol,” his Act II aria.??

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