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Sunday, January 16, 2011

DVD Review: Blood Bath in Baden-Baden

Linda Watson as Elektra. Photo by Andrea Kremper © 2010 Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
This DVD of Richard Strauss' blood-drenched Greek tragedy was filmed in June of 2010 at Baden-Baden. This is a successful, almost clinical staging of the opera, staged by Herbert Wernicke without the usual gore and decay.  Mr. Wernicke's set is stark and geometric, dominated by a giant rotating, black rectangle that turns on its diagonal axis to reveal bright hues. It's like a Robert Wilson production, unhampered by awkward body movements.

In the opening monologue, soprano Linda Watson pushes her instrument to the absolute limit, and beyond. Elektra is a murderously difficult role, and this American soprano sings with a searing sound when at full voice over Strauss' gigantic orchestra.  Ms. Watson achieves command of Strauss' tricky waltz rhythms in the second part of the aria, and manages a full, powerful presence, never leaving the center of attention. She is sweet, even cloying in her scenes with Chrysothemis. Finally, she opens up her voice for an impressive "Recognition Scene" with Orest, raising her voice high against the (temporarily) lightened orchestration in a soaring arch of sound.

Klytaemnestra is played with a grandiose, Sunset Boulevard decadence by Jane Henschel. Strauss reserved his most difficult music for this mother-daughter confrontation, sinuous, ear-scraping orchestral figures that broke the limits of tonality and inspired many modern composers.

The confrontation is masterfully acted and powerfully sung, with impressive, almost growled low notes from Ms. Henschel. Klytaemnestra's scarlet-and-gold train is put to good use as a as a symbol of power and a surrogate bloodstain for the murder that is to come.

As Chrysothemis, the "good" sister embroiled in Elektra's plan to avenge the murder of her father, Manuela Uhl makes a solid impression. Ms. Uhl has a hard, bright instrument that is also taxed by the heavy orchestra. Emotionally, she is limited to fear and confusion, caught between her mother's machinations and her sister's raw blood lust, but those are the two central emotions of this weak character. One clever touch: after Klytaemnestra is axed, her younger daughter wastes no time in appropriating the baubles, charms and beads from the Queen's corpse--effectively taking her mother's place.

In an opera with three leading ladies, it is sometimes hard for the men to be noticed. Rene Kollo is Aegisth, the latest in a line of faded heldentenors to be led to the slaughter. Albert Dohmen is a powerful, if unemotional Orest, determined to kill his mother and steeled to the task at hand. This sturdy Wagner baritone does not have time to give much more information than that.

On the podium, Christian Thielemann shows great command of rhythm and Strauss' rich orchestral detail. He leads the Munich Philharmonic with a light, airy touch, letting the orchestra waltz in demented triple time before letting the brass smash out great, slab-like chords. Mr. Thielemann is a fine Strauss conductor, who follows the composer's advice about Elektra: to conduct "as if it were by Mendelssohn: fairy music."

Opening monologue from Elektra, sung by Linda Watson

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