Review: Strauss’ Elektra / Berliner Philharmonie

Philharmonie, Berlin, 4 April 2024

Richard Strauss: Elektra

Traditionally, the Berliner Philharmoniker perform their Easter Festival productions in their home city of Berlin after the last performance in Salzburg or Baden-Baden. The fact that the operas are not staged here, but ‘only’ performed in concert, certainly has its advantages, as the music always takes precedence in these performances and one is spared abstruse, absurd stagings. This year’s programme included the one-act musical drama Elektra by Richard Strauss.

Unfortunately, in the first of two concert performances at the Philharmonie in Berlin, Nina Stemme, of all people, the most important interpreter of this work, cancelled at short notice for health reasons, and Ricarda Merbeth took over the title role. Elektra is a demanding role for the voice. Unfortunately, there are very few dramatic sopranos at the moment who are as capable of the role as Birgit Nilsson, Inge Borkh or Astrid Varnay once were.

The last singers I have seen in recent times give a respectable performance in the role were Linda Watson (2010) and Evelyn Herlitzius (2014) in performances under Christian Thielemann in Baden-Baden and Dresden respectively. Since then, only the Swedish Birgit Nilsson Prize winner Nina Stemme has remained, whom I would have loved to hear as Elektra, and whom I unfortunately – but nevertheless – heard in the Digital Concert Hall at the second performance on 7 April, which she fortunately sang.

And to put it bluntly, the difference between the two performers is huge, not even in terms of volume, rather Stemme’s soprano has greater beauty and radiance, firing her notes like torches at the top. The Swedish star also uses her wonderful top voice effortlessly in some difficult, quiet, lyrical passages, for example when she reminds her mother Klytämnestra that she herself is a goddess. Ricarda Merbeth does not have such tones at all.

Merbeth had improved considerably since her last appearance in Berlin at the Staatsoper unter den Linden a few months ago, when Waltraud Meier celebrated her farewell from the stage as Klytämnestra. Merbeth’s soprano then sounded too narrow, strained and colourless in the high register, and her interpretation of the role remained pale. Nevertheless, she was able to establish herself in the role, for which she is in great demand internationally. Probably also because of the lack of strong competition. This time her vocal delivery seemed more acceptable, she tended to shout less in the high register and, above all, gave the text more weight in terms of expression and matching facial expressions. And despite all this, she sang quite clearly in the middle and low registers (which is very difficult, almost impossible, in the high registers).

And yet, when Stemme stands on the podium, another world opens up. Her soprano is powerful and proud, full-bodied yet slender, with a sparing use of vibrato. She leads it confidently into every register, and her hatred for Klytämnestra, who killed Elektra’s father Agamemnon, oozes from every pore. There is no better Elektra at the moment. The way in which the Swede masters this powerful role, which demands the highest level of commitment almost without interruption, is sensational. No one else can match her at the moment.

In the role of Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, there was a reunion with the South African soprano Elza van den Heever, who had already sung the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten under Petrenko the previous year. She too has great power but, like Merbeth, she sings a little too narrowly in the high register and with less favourable wide-mouth tension. In the middle register, however, her soprano exudes warmth and the femininity appropriate to the role when, in her great scene, she longs for a family with children, a “woman’s destiny”.

The strongest performance on the first night I attended on 4 April was that of Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra, with her imposing volume, strong presence, profound depth and exquisite understanding of the text, best remembered as the nurse in last year’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Her ominous monologue “Ich habe keine guten Nächte”, marked by fear and remorse, is particularly gripping, beginning in a mysterious whisper, with facial expressions and gestures that seem to be coordinated with it, and crazy looks of madness and fear.  The great tension between the mythological queen and her daughter Elektra is conveyed through minimalist body language, with no scenery, props or costumes.

Another exciting moment in the one-act play is the appearance of Elektra’s brother Orest, solidly cast as Johan Reuter, who has come to take revenge on their mother.

Photo: Bettina Stoess

Kirill Petrenko conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in a very singer-friendly way, stirring, powerful and dramatic, but at the same time always singer-friendly and careful not to cover anyone up. It is clear that Petrenko is in his element when it comes to drama, and this is energetically transmitted to the orchestra, which always plays with great vigour, be it in Elektra’s beginning “Allein” or at the end in her crazy dance of joy. This is matched by the composer’s advanced tonal language, which Strauss found in this work: the way he dares to use blatant dissonance to depict extreme psychological situations and push major-minor harmony to the limit, Elektra is rightly regarded as his most modern music drama. In places where the music becomes more intimate, quieter and lyrical, Petrenko, like Thielemann, could have been more subtly dynamic, but this is criticism at a high level.

Petrenko’s posture is exemplary. From beginning to end, he stands as straight as a candle on the podium, completely at the service of the music, with mostly sparing gestures. The fact that the singers paced up and down to his right and left proved unfavourable, so that he could give them the odd cue with a quick glance over his shoulder. Communication with the soloists as well as with the musicians, which would have been desirable in terms of affect and expression, would have required a different arrangement, with the singers taking their places directly in front of Petrenko.

Petrenko showed the harshness of the tragedy with its merciless revenge, an eye for an eye. At times, the tonal harshness bordered on Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, but the beginnings of this aggression can certainly be heard in Strauss’ score.

In the Philharmonie, at any rate, the radically exposed drama was a hit, and Petrenko and his ensemble were highly acclaimed.

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