A Question of Momentum

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 24 de abril de 2024
Berlin, domingo, 7 de abril de 2024. Philharmonie Berlin. Strauss: Elektra. Nina Stemme (Elektra), Michaela Schuster (Klytämnestra), Elza van den Heever (Chrysothemis), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Aegisth), and Johan Reuter (Orest). Berlin Philharmonic. Kirill Petrenko, conductor

Recent instalments of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Easter Festival in Baden Baden have featured a high-profile opera performance as its centrepiece; and for those of us unable to leave Berlin over the Easter weekend, the orchestra has traditionally offered a subsequent concert performance at the Philharmonie in the week following. Last year the opera was Die Frau ohne Schatten and this year, continuing on the theme of unassailable Strauss masterpieces, the audience was treated to a performance of Elektra featuring Nina Stemme in the title role. With a strong supporting cast and compelling musical direction from Kirill Petrenko, the evening was memorable as much for its unbroken tension as for its explosive outbursts of high drama.

Elektra is unique among Strauss’ operas precisely for its relentlessness. If Salome hints at Strauss’ ability to unfold a grand tragedy within a single-act structure, the ineffectual Herod and his bickering guests nonetheless offer moments of respite. In Elektra there is no such relief; it’s all momentum. It builds gradually and inevitably to its great summit – the meeting of Elektra and Klytämnestra – then allows the story to propel itself towards its equally inevitable denouément. It is a level of dramatic concentration that Strauss would never again attempt – even the second act of Die Frau is followed by an interval to allow the audience to catch their breath – and the vigour of the score, combined with a story that remains fresh some two and a half millennia after it was first written down, may explain the opera’s continued popularity.

The performance on this evening possessed a strong sense of the work’s dramatic unity and forward thrust. Elektra’s sequence of one-on-one encounters with Chrysothemis, Klytämnestra, Orest and Aegisth can lend itself to episodic interpretations, but Mr Petrenko’s reading – highly focussed and possessed of a momentum to match the score – built patiently to the climactic moment when Elektra and Klytämnestra part ways, then guided the succeeding scenes as they gathered in ferocity. Mr Petrenko’s vision of the tragedy did not, however, translate to overdriven tempi. Indeed the evening’s finest moments were those in which orchestral control was paired with an unnervingly measured pace: Elektra’s opening monologue was kept at a simmer, allowing the drama to emerge as much from the words as from the subtleties of orchestration. The first appearance of the Agamemnon theme rose slowly to the surface as though from the bottom of a tar pit, and was all the more effective for taking its familiar shape so gradually. The quiet tension in Klytämnestra’s admission of insomnia – a moment of disarming calm in a scene that otherwise crackled with mutual ill will – was equally compelling, as was the profound brass and dreamlike tempo that heralded the arrival of Orest.

While much of the action was delineated with great attention to detail – this was one concert performance in which the lack of sets and costumes detracted not even remotely from one’s involvement in the drama – there were a handful of moments, especially in the later scenes, in which the pursuit of intensity led to a lack of orchestral clarity. The death of Aegisth and its aftermath never quite found a balance between the exertions of the orchestra, the acclamations of the offstage choir and the triumphant exclamations of Chrysothemis, and emerged instead as a barely-controlled chaos. But, as it often the case with Mr Petrenko’s Strauss performances, the passages of extreme exhilaration outweighed the handful of undisciplined moments.

At the centre of the evening was Nina Stemme, an experienced exponent of the role in the opera house, but somehow even more compelling without the constraints of a full staging. Her opening ‘Allein’, unexpectedly soft and addressed more to herself than the audience, eased into an opening monologue that was never hurried but full of tension. Even more than Mr Petrenko, Ms Stemme seemed to be dictating the pace of the scene, retelling the tale of Agamemnon’s murder with absolute precision. However it was the scenes with Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra that brought out the best in Ms Stemme’s performance: if she was less conspicuously wild than many Elektras there was always dramatic agitation close to the surface, and in the few moments where she allowed explosive emotion to get the better of control – her venomous cursing of Chrysothemis or her chilling dismissal of Klytämnestra – the results were as thrilling as one could hope. It was a performance that, at the end of the evening, had no difficulty bringing the normally reluctant Berlin audience to its feet.

Michaela Schuster provided the evening with a captivating Klytämnestra. Although she approached the performance as though she were on an opera house stage, her expressive glances and theatrical gestures only served to enhance a reading of great complexity. The haughtiness of her initial appearance began to fall away as she confided of her insomnia – perhaps the quietest and most ominous moment of the evening – and the emotional ambiguity that emerged in the course of her subsequent dialogue with Elektra revealed a character forever tortured by the past.

Elza van den Heever was very good at expressing the plaintive side of Chrysothemis and was able to convey the full frustration of a reasonably sane person trying to reconcile with a half-mad sister, but her performance was at its best when it was at its most frantic: her desperate announcement of Orest’s death and her pleas for Elektra’s help were thrilling encapsulations of hopelessness. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang a crisp, well-realised Aegisth, unsympathetic and vaguely cartoonish but never cloyingly so; and Johan Reuter, despite a few moments in which the subtleties of his phrasing were overwhelmed by the might of the orchestra, was a sturdy Orest: his trance-like opening lines, introduced by deeply concentrated brass, suggested that the mystery guest could just as well have been a figment of Elektra’s hypercharged imagination.

Pieza enlazada

Mr Petrenko’s recent Strauss performances with the Berlin Philharmonic – especially last year’s Die Frau and a frenetic Symphonia Domestic this past February – have tended to mix passages of the highest possible excitement with frustrating moments of seeming abandon in which one longs for greater directorial intervention, whether the gentler sculpting of a particular theme or a tighter rein on the balance between brass and strings. On this evening the moments of excitement were there in abundance, but the reservations were far fewer: it may be that in the relentless momentum of Elektra Mr Petrenko found a score ideally matched to his own style and sensibilities.

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