Hot on the heels of this year’s COVID-secure Salzburg Festival, here comes one of the star productions from the pioneering 2020 Festival, one of the few events to go ahead among the decimated European arts landscape that was summer 2020. Thanks to a well-directed video (Myriam Hoyer) we can forget about the masks, COVID tests and social distancing and sit back and grapple with this absorbing new production of Elektra by the Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski. 

Elektra

Strauss’s psychologically penetrating opera is more easily and effectively updated than many and Warlikowski’s staging is an insightful one, if sometimes a little fussy. Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s granitic set, beautifully lit by Felice Ross, dominates the full width of the Felsenreitschule stage and includes an inner room with a giant bath in which early on we witness Agamemnon’s brutal murder (indeed, the camera here allows us to see more detail than was likely available to the audience in the house). Similarly, later on we get to see the killing of Klytämnestra and Aegisth. The production is also haunted by the dead king’s wandering shade spurring both daughters on to vengeance. Szczęśniak’s costumes are surprising cheery – a stylish evening gown for Elektra (!?) and – and the excellent chorus of maids get to do a great deal of smoking acting. 

Conducting and cast are first rate. Franz Welser-Möst’s pacing is spot on, and he balances Strauss’s titanic forces impeccably bringing out the chamber-like textures in the quieter passages. He’s sensitive too to his singers, although all have plenty of vocal heft.

Topping the bill are Lithuanian sopranos Ausrine Stundyte – making an auspicious role debut as Elektra – and Asmik Grigorian – Salzburg’s magnetic Salome from 2018 and this year’s much-applauded Bayreuth Senta – as her sister, Chrysothemis. We first glimpse Elektra as the child who sees her father slaughtered, and Stundytė carries those wounds like a cross throughout. With a more vulnerable Elektra, Grigorian’s Chrysothemis is less the shrinking violet, here taking an equal share in the killing of her mother and stepfather. A pair of outstanding singing actors, both are utterly convincing.

Stundytė’s unexpectedly lyrical soprano matches Warlikowski’s more softly-softly approach and she copes well with the more punishing aspects of the title role, even if she lacks the gimlet-eyed top of a Nilsson. Grigorian’s silvery soprano is blessed with a firm middle register. Together they make believable siblings and fire off each other in times of conflict.  

German mezzo soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner is a sumptuous-toned, monstrous Klytämnestra up to her elbows in human cadavers. Michael Laurenz makes a refreshing change as Aegisth, less camp old roué more dangerous adversary. Only Derek Welton’s slightly dull, dithery Orest disappoints.

Not everyone will like everything about Warlikowski’s take on Sophocles – I could have lived without Klytämnestra’s lengthy spoken monologue as prologue to the opera proper – but there’s no denying it’s an intelligent interpretation. Meanwhile, Möst, Stundyte and Grigorian deserve to be seen and heard. 

Composer: Richard Strauss
Work: Elektra
Performers: Aušrinė Stundytė, Asmik Grigorian, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Michael Laurenz, Derek Welton, Wiener Staatsoper, Franz Welser-Möst
Label: Unitel 804308 (DVD) 804404 (Blu-ray)