Strauss’ Elektra, for all its “grand” music, is essentially a rather intimate psychological study of the psyches and relationships of three women. Given this, one might think that the enormous stage of the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg a very odd choice of venue. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s approach to the challenge is bold but almost impossible to do justice to on video. Despite that, what does come across on video is a rather compelling version of the work.
So let’s dissect what Warlikowski is doing. First the bit that works on video. He really interrogates the nature of the three women characters and their relationships. The really interesting one here is Chrysothemis. She’s usually played as Elektra’s wimpy sister lacking courage and agency and yearning to be “normal”. Here we get a Chrysothemis who is just as set on revenge as her sister; indeed it’s she who kills Aegisth. She isn’t prepared to mope in the dark waiting for a miracle but gets on with life as best she can and, of course, she’s the only principal character left alive and sane at the end. The wimpy sister trope is usually reinforced by casting a full on dramatic voice as Elektra and a much lighter voice as Chrysothemis. Aušriné Stundyté and Asmik Grigorian seem much more similar. The same is true of the casting of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Klytämnestra. She comes off as a mature woman in full possession of her faculties rather than a raddled old hag. This is helped by giving her a forceful spoken prologue explaining the what’s and why’s of killing Agamemnon. The net effect is to make the women seem more like people than archetypes.
The approach to using the large space is twofold. There’s a lot of video plus transluscent coloured set boxes on stage. Both modes are used to play out various aspects of back story and subtext. Most of this is not seen on the video but I did glimpse Iphigenia and at the end the whole back wall of the Felsenreitschule comes alive with spattering blood and giant flies which turn into a swarm clearly suggesting the Erinyes as Orest very visibly descends into madness. There are other things too. Three naked dummies whose meaning escaped me. The ghost of Agamemnon, who may be omnipresent but is only seen occasionally on the video. There are other characters too but one doesn’t see enough on video to understand what they are there for. The point of all this is clear when the video director gives us a wide shot. We see one or two tiny figures completely dwarfed by the space so I think Warlikowski is right to create additional visual innterest.
And so to the performances. The three ladies are spectacularly good. Their singing and acting is top notch. Stundyté has a ton of physical acting to do as well as singing a really tough role. The acting is brilliant and if she’s not the biggest voice to ever sing Elektra she’s nuanced. It helps that Franz Welser-Most gets a nuanced reading from the orchestra (the Wiiener Philharmoniker) too. He goes more for subtlety, structure and elegance than sheer volume which is a very good thing in my view. Grigorian and Baumgartner too bring subtlety and nuance to their roles. They are backed up by a very good Orest in Derek Welton who is really effective in his final descent into madness. The minor roles are all more than adequately covered.
Myriam Hoyer had the unenviable task of filming this. She has to make a ton of compromises but I think her judgement is sound. What emerges on disk is highly watchable in its own right as well as probably conveying a reasonable flavour of what the theatre audience saw. On Blu-ray the video and audio (PCM stereo and DTS-HD-MA) quality is very good and it needs to be. This is one of those highly detailed stagings with lots of lighting effects that can easily turn to mush on video. There no extras on the disk and not much of substance in the booklet though there is a detailed track listing. Subtitles are German, English, French, Italian, Korean and Japanese.
Overall I think this production was a fitting way to celebrate the centenary of the Salzburg festival and, of course, it was one of the very few live performances anywhere in the summer of 2020. I’m not sure though that it’s the ideal introduction to Elektra. Those familiar with the opera will find much to enjoy and think about but first timers might be better off with Lehnhoff’s earlier Salzburg effort or even with Götz Friedrich’s classic film.