lunedì 7 novembre 2011

A Memorable Evening in Music & Vision 8 October

A Memorable Evening
GIUSEPPE PENNISI reports on the
Richard Strauss masterpiece co-produced by
Rome's Teatro dell'Opera and the Salzburg Festival

The last opera presented by the Teatro dell'Opera of Rome in the 2010-2011 season deserves very high marks. It enthralled the audience for 105 minutes, and then there erupted fifteen minutes of applause, standing ovation and accolades to the conductor (Stefan Soltesz), the protagonist (Eva Johansson) and the full cast. The Mayor of Rome awaited the artists (after they changed their clothes) and offered them and a few guests a reception to celebrate the event. The success was very unusual because Friday 30 September 2011 (the opening night of the production in Rome) was a very warm evening -- at the end of a rarely hot week; well off Romans (like the Teatro dell'Opera opening night subscribers) normally migrate to their beach homes late on Friday afternoon and leave several orchestra rows and boxes empty. Thus, in football terms, the Teatro dell'Opera 2010-2011 season ended with a well-centered full goal.

Eva Johansson in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Elektra' with ?????????? as ??????????????. Photo © 2011 Corrado Maria Falsini. Click on the image for higher resolution
As discussed in M&V on 9 February 2010 [Sheer Tension -- the first performance of the unabridged 'Elektra'], in the Strauss-Hofmannsthal catalogue, Elektra is the opera most performed in Italy; last year, for instance, an important production toured a number of provincial Opera Houses normally accustomed to Verdi, Rossini and Donizetti, not to German music or large orchestras. (In order to produce Elektra, two of the four houses merged their orchestras.) On that occasion, I discussed the contents of the opera which in the Teatro dell'Opera has had seven different productions in the course of the last century. I also discussed the production unveiled in Rome on 30 September in M&V on 19 August 2010 [When God and Man Collide] when it was presented in Salzburg; in fact, it is a joint venture between the Salzburg Festival and Rome's Teatro dell'Opera. Therefore, this review will focus on the difference between the Salzburg and the Rome edition; the stage direction (Nikolaus Lehnhoff), sets (Raimund Bauer), costumes (Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) and lighting (Duane Schuler) are the same (and the full team was in Rome for the rehearsals), but the conductor, the orchestras and the singers are a completely different group.

Eva Johansson in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Elektra'. Photo © 2011 Corrado Maria Falsini. Click on the image for higher resolution
The stage of the Teatro dell'Opera is wide and deep (as compared with those of many opera houses) but not as oversized as that of Salzburg's Grosses Festspielhaus. The set fits even better in Rome than in Salzburg because the dilapidated social tenement with its leaning walls and circa 1920s costumes echoes the German expressionist cinema (Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Hermann Warm). Thus, they heighten the obsessive and claustrophobic atmosphere of the opera. Also, on a smaller stage, the audience can better appreciate the careful acting by the principals and the choreographic movements of the chorus (who were, as a matter of fact, Elektra's chambermaids -- a set of soloists with a major counterpoint section in the opening scene of the opera).

Felicity Palmer as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss' 'Elektra'. Photo © 2011 Corrado Maria Falsini. Click on the image for higher resolution
Elektra was performed unabridged following the most recent critical edition. Stefan Soltesz had been called at the last moment when the conductor-designate, Fabio Luisi, left the rehearsals to run to the Metropolitan Opera House to replace James Levine (who is seriously ill). Stefan Soltesz is very well known in Germany and Central Europe but not in Italy. He is now the principal conductor of the Essen Opera House and a Strauss specialist. His baton was perfect and the orchestra followed him with the precision and enthusiasm shown almost only when Riccardo Muti is in the pit. Two important points: the opera lasted 105 minutes (as conceived by Strauss, not 120 as conducted by Daniele Gatti in Salzburg) and the sporadic atonalism and the queasy harmonic passages had more emphasis in Rome than in Salzburg. Also in the final scene, Soltesz underscored (more that Gatti did in Salzburg) the violent extremes of vocal lines and histrionic moods as well as of dynamics of post-romantic orchestration and their implicit similarities with Schönberg's Erwatung (also first produced in 1909). Thus, the conductor and the orchestra showed how in 1909 Strauss was at his most advanced point toward modernist atonality, at which point he then staged a prudent retreat. Just for these aspects, the performance will deserve to be recorded because they illustrate a seldom heard aspect of Elektra. Nonetheless, the baton and the orchestra were very secure in their tonal norm against which to measure its harsh atonal effects, often disorienting the audience. Altogether, the Teatro dell'Opera had a much better 'buy' with Soltesz than with Luisi whose Salome in Bologna was, in my opinion, frankly disappointing because it lacked any tint. Good luck to the Metropolitan Opera House.

Alejandro Marco Buhrmester as Orest and Eva Johansson in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Elektra'. Photo © 2011 Corrado Maria Falsini. Click on the image for higher resolution
The singers were wholly different from the Salzburg cast. Here a comparison would not be appropriate: readers can go to M&V on 19 August 2010 if interested in the Salzburg group of singers. Even though she had been ill almost to the date of the dress rehearsal, Evan Johansson was a remarkable Elektra and deserved the accolades at the end of the performance, by which time it was hard to remember her tonally frantic 'Agammenon' at the start of the opera -- the tonality returns at the end of the musikdrama -- and her monologue from the original D to the curdled B minor (in recalling her father) to the visionary dance in C major. Also memorable was her final wild dance to death when the curtain is about to fall. At the age of sixty-seven, Felicity Palmer (Klytämnestra) has a royal tenure on stage but shows her tormented sufferings for her crimes. Her dialogue with Elektra is one of the high points of the opera; nearly a symphonic exposition where she goes from acute to mezza voce. She provides a lesson to many singers. Melanie Diener is Chrysothemis; her desire for sex, child-bearing and life is the opposite to the starvation for death of both her mother and her sister. A lovely soprano assoluto in her waltz aria and in her confrontation with her sister when Elektra wants her to be her partner in the matricide.

Eva Johansson in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Elektra' with ?????????? as ??????????????. Photo © 2011 Corrado Maria Falsini. Click on the image for higher resolution
There is a strong Freudian link among the three women protagonists. As often in Strauss, the men remain in the background and have no room for special vocal parts. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester is a very effective Orest, especially in the scene when brother and sister recognize each other and embrace speechless. In that scene he can show all his qualities as a Strauss baritone. Derek Welton is his preceptor. Wolfgang Schmidt was good in his short but difficult steady C as Aegisth.

Eva Johansson in the title role of Richard Strauss' 'Elektra'. Photo © 2011 Corrado Maria Falsini. Click on the image for higher resolution
In short a memorable evening.
Copyright © 8 October 2011 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy

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