Why is Elektra like Idomeneo? Because both are sequels to stories of the Trojan War. For his Salzburg Festival debut in 1990, Nikolaus Lehnhoff directed a modern-dress Idomeneo memorable even now for a trench coat, once worn by the slain King Priam, that represented princess Ilia's last link to her fallen city.
Consistently one of the most thoughtful of the academic German directors, and at his best one of the most rewarding, Lehnhoff followed up last summer with a modern-dress Elektra cut, as it were, from the same cloth. This time, the trench coat is Agamemnon's. His vengeful daughter Elektra wears it and all but makes love to it. His widow and killer Klytämnestra gets a turn with it, too, slipping it on even as she evokes the nameless dread that fills her sleepless nights. At the final curtain, Elektra passes the mantle to her brother Orest and falls down dead.
Lehnhoff dispenses with the embarrassment of Elektra's dancing, which is less than no loss. The action unfolds in what seems the atrium of an off-kilter Fascist prison, leaning walls pocked with peepholes, buckling pavement dug up as if for a mass grave. (The setting, by Raimund Bauer, might be an Expressionist homage to the Felsenreitschule, the Baroque setting of the Lehnhoff Idomeneo.) Much of the back wall is given over to a wide garage door, which rises at the end to reveal the slaughterhouse within. (Guess who is hanging upside down from a meat hook, her breasts exposed?) From that predictable coup de théâtre, Lehnhoff proceeds to another that is subtler and more harrowing — the flocking of black-winged Furies out of thin air.
For a viewer who saw the show in Salzburg, as I did, the big picture will scarcely register. But the impact of the detailed ensemble work remains huge. As in many Lehnhoff productions, the female characters italicize emotion with great flair. Nobody does it better than Waltraud Meier, whose incomparably glamorous Klytämnestra might be channeling Gloria Swanson. Beneath her purple-sequined turban, sunglasses and floor-length, fire-engine-red fun fur lies a bone-deep desolation. Confiding in Iréne Theorin's moody, bullheaded Elektra, she is taking a gamble she pretends may not cost her life. For a change, the moment of edgy intimacy between mother and daughter seems unfeigned on both sides.
The subsequent agon builds to a conclusion that goes a quantum leap beyond the surefire melodramatics envisioned by the opera's creators. As always, Elektra's savage vision of Klytämnestra's murder at the hands of the returning Orest renders Klytämnestra speechless. As always, Klytämnestra's Confidante and Trainbearer then rush in and fill her ear with the whispered news (false) that Orest is dead. And here, making no fuss about it, Lehnhoff rewrites the action for heightened psychological truth. Rather than bounce back and exit with triumphant shrieks of demonic laughter, Klytämnestra totters off in silence, a shattered woman. To her entourage falls the business of mocking the confounded Elektra, who is still in the dark. Elektra may not know it, but we do: her verbal assault has dealt her mother's deathblow. Orest has yet to appear, but already, his waiting sister has done his job for him.
Her full moon of a face splotchy with chalk, Theorin looks out at the world through ice-blue eyes that know no compassion. Vocally, the title role holds few terrors for her. Even when called on to raise the rafters, she maintains hints of the astonishing roundness and bloom she brings to the soft pages of the recognition scene. A formidable technician, Meier wields her lean, smooth mezzo like a calligrapher's pen, punctuating her phrases in accents of clipped parlando. The Chrysothemis of Eva-Maria Westbroek recalls the fidgety, brittle flibbertigibbets of Jules Feiffer, an effect heightened by her wild and strident tone. René Pape, in mournful voice, lends Orest a profound and troubled gravitas. Robert Gambill's stalwart Aegisth enters like a country squire, takes a stunning pratfall, pops his eyes in dismay, and is gone. As the Young Servant, Benjamin Hulett bubbles over with infectious excitement.
A conductor gets a workout with this opera. On opening night, Daniele Gatti's reward was merciless booing, supposedly because he covered the singers. That isn't a problem on the video, but possibly the sound engineers have done some tweaking. That said, my impression in the house at the third or fourth performance was that Gatti's work had been capable, well paced, and by no means unusually loud. This is Elektra, after all.
Iréne Theorin, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Waltraud Meier; Robert Gambill, René Pape; Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Daniele Gatti. Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Arthaus Musik 101 560 (Blu-ray) or 101 559 (DVD), 109 mins., subtitled.