Richard Strauss - Elektra
Opéra National de Paris, 2013
Philippe Jordan, Robert Carsen, Waltraud Meier, Irène Theorin, Ricarda Merbeth, Kim Begley, Evgeny Nikitin, Miranda Keys
Opéra Bastille - 7 November 2013
Sometimes when you're not really expecting it and with the least likely of works the Paris Opera get it wonderfully right. You'd have thought that the previous night's Aida would have been better suited to the vast stage of the Bastille, but Olivier Py's production ended up filling the stage with everything except that which is essential. Robert Carsen, the other director featuring prominently in this season's programme at the Opéra National de Paris, by way of contrast took a minimalist approach but used the space much more effectively in his new production for Elektra by stripping it bare and exposing the dark intimate heart of the work. With every other element falling into place to support it, this was a marvellous account of a masterwork.
It might not have been much too look at, but it seems that the more sparse the staging, the more powerful the expression of Elektra is. Director Robert Carsen gives us nothing but a bare stage with a few inches of soil or dark sand, surrounded far back by a structure of curved steel walls. Similar to another of Carsen's recent productions, Die Zauberflöte (not opening in Paris until next year, but already seen at Baden Baden), there's a pit at the centre here that gives the impression of a grave. Elektra is all about establishing mood and Carsen adheres to the basic principle of Hugo von Hofmannstahl's stage directions of "a blend of light and night, of darkness and brightness".
The other simple but effective element of Carsen's staging is his use of a Greek chorus. Rather than leaving that vast space empty but for a gaping hole (which in any case would have been more than enough with the cast here and the performance of the orchestra under Philippe Jordan), a group of black-robed, pale-faced women - attired in the same fashion as Electra - mirror her movements and highlight her gestures, suggesting that she possesses an extra force that cannot be confined to one person alone, while at the same time showing a fracturing of her personality. Which is a fairly accurate visual depiction of how it is scored with psychological precision by Richard Strauss. What remained to be conveyed by the staging was achieved through the lighting, through shadows cast on the curved walls and through the stage directions - most notably in how the various members of the drama make their entrances and exits. In the case of Clytemnestra, for example, she arrives borne upon a bed and exits dropped down into the grave.
While the stage management and how it reflects upon the characters was evidently carefully considered and had a significant impact on the presentation of this opera, the singing takes up the other major part of the challenge and here the casting was very strong indeed. Waltraud Meier may not be the force she once was, but she is nonetheless one of the great Clytemnestras with a gorgeous timbre and loads of personality. She was certainly more expressive and forceful here than in her performance of the role at Aix earlier this year for Patrice Chéreau. Irène Theorin likewise seemed not only more expressive here than in her performance of Electra in Christof Loy's production at Salzburg, and much more human at the same time, but she also consequently carried the incredibly difficult singing challenges of the role with more authority and conviction.
Between them Theorin and Meier created a formidable team that sustained the considerable singing challenges of the work and the important mother/daughter relationship that lies at the heart of the drama. There were however no weaknesses elsewhere, with Evgeny Nikitin a fine Orestes, Kim Begley making a necessary impression even in the minor role of Aegisthus, and Ricarda Merbeth an outstanding Chrysothemis. Philippe Jordan led the Paris orchestra through this difficult work, highlighting here the surprising lush qualities that can be found in Strauss's sometimes harsh and unsettling score. It was consequently perhaps not as dark and mercilessly punishing as Elektra can be, but taken alongside Carsen's staging, it was pitched perfectly and powerfully to achieve the necessary impact without overwhelming the precision of the dramatic intent.