I don’t think Richard Strauss’ Elektra is an easy opera to stage. The story is straightforward and really well known and the opera is constructed largely as a series of dialogues so designing visual and dramatic elements that enhance the drama is a real challenge. In his 2005 production for the Opernhaus Zürich Martin Kušej tries hard to do so but rather comes up short. Fortunately his detailed direction of the singers is effective and pretty much makes up for the “Kušej bingo card” elements of the production.
The production is staged in modern dress. Elektra is a sort of feral in a hoodie, Chrothemis wears a long white dress, Klytämnestra wears a rather Thatcherite twin set and pearls and so on. The set is a large room with an uneven floor and rows of doors either side. Most of the time it’s very dark but when the doors open the stage is flooded with very bright light from the sides. The chorus and supers appear at interval from the doors and parade across the stage in straight lines in various states of dress and undress. Occasionally it gets interesting as in the final scene where a gang of Brazilian style Carnival dancers appear but mostly it seems a bit pointless. Video director Felix Breisach obviously thinks so because he all but ignores the staging in favour of close ups, even closer ups and extremely close ups; to the point where the blood vessels in the singers’ eyeballs are visible. It has its moments but it’s not terribly coherent.
Fortunately the performances are excellent and the Personenregie is solid. Eva Johansson’s Elektra is solidly sung and just hovers on the edge of hysteria making for a dramatically compelling portrayal. Melanie Diener is excellent as Chrysothemis and Marjana Lipovšek is a comparatively restrained Klytämnestra and all the better for it. Generally the chemistry between the women is very good. The men are perfectly adequate and Sen Guo ihas a nice cameo performance as the Fifth Maid. Christoph von Dohnányi’s reading of the score is notable for its rhythmic precision and is all the better for it. It’s not the most overblown or dramatic interpretation but it’s convincing.
The disk is OK but hardly exceptional by 2005 standards. The 16:9 picture is adequate and the DTS surround sound really pretty good (DD 5.1 and LPCM stereo also available) but there are no extras and documentation is fairly basic. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles.
This is a decent enough effort but it really doesn’t get under the skin of the work the way the old Götz Friedrich film version does.