(New Theatre, Cardiff) The Force of Destiny (London Coliseum)
Ihave only one substantial objection to the Welsh National Opera's stupendous new staging of Richard Strauss's Elektra the absence of surtitles. On the one hand, the company has sunk to a hideously vulgar advertising campaign, designed to sensa- tionalise the production and, in the cant phrase, 'make it more accessible'. On the other hand, the management insists (very properly) on performing this wordy master- piece in Hofmannsthal's German, thus denying those supposedly lured in by the ads the chance to understand what's going on. If someone like myself, with 0-level German and a long acquaintance with the opera, requires help with the intricacies of its action and psychological nuances, what hope for the neophytes?
Fortunately, the performance generated an excitement that overrode the problem of comprehension. In one sense, David Alden's production, designed by Paul Bond and Charles Edwards, was a predictable exercise in the style familiar from his work for the English National Opera: the tilted box set, the skew-whiff perspectives, the naked, swinging light-bulb, the legion of weirdos and baldies, the ladies in camp evening dress and men in demob suits, the seismic cracks across the floor, the white- tiled wall, the ambience of a night-club bordering on a lunatic asylum, the sense that humanity has walked out and left only zombies and bully boys to run the joint.
Yes, I know, we've been here before, many times. But this is a world that one can readily identify with Elektra's psychotic scenario, streaked with the blackest of comedy and stained with blood and bile. The imagery concentrates the action, fram- ing a coherent set of performances from a totally committed cast, who play off each other with a subtlety and immediacy that you don't often see in an opera house. Janet Hardy's heroic attempt at Elektra (the Hamlet of female operatic roles) may not communicate the mordantly cunning and clever aspect of the character, but it packs a strong lunatic punch: I particularly liked the hint — just a hint — that she has a drug habit. The voice is uningratiating and edgy in tonal quality, but once over the hurdle of the `Allein!' monologue (negoti- ated with a few bumps and a lot of nervous vibrato), it proved a stayer. In terms of intonation and clarity and stamina, I would say that Miss Hardy makes a better job of it than either of her more celebrated rivals, Hildegard Behrens or Gwyneth Jones not that that's saying much, quite frankly.
The most gorgeous sounds of the evening came from Eva Maria Bundschuh, whose vampish Chrysothemis was ravish- ingly sung with a silvery fullness reminis- cent, if I may be connoisseurish for a moment, of the young Helga Dernesch. Bundschuh's career has been based in Berlin, where she holds a reputation com- parable to Josephine Barstow's in London (of which more later): I hope we will hear her again soon. Felicity Palmer's magnifi- cently projected Clytemnestra was less grotesque than is usual, and a good deal more convincing.
The biggest surprise, however, was the success of the conductor, Carlo Rizzi, WNO's new musical director. We have heard him deliver a mean Barbiere di Siviglia and a hot Rigoletto, but it was hard to imagine what he would do faced with the massive orchestral complexities of Elektra, with its peculiarly landlocked and Middle- European mix of bombast, kitsch and emo- tional perversity. In the event Rizzi went for it gung-ho and came out triumphant. His was a bold, brilliant and overt reading, in which he played his cards straight down the line. The Orchestra of the WNO per- formed superbly for him.
Without wishing to denigrate this terrific achievement, it must be admitted that Elek- tra is one of those operas that is so tightly composed and constructed that it can hard- ly fail to make an impact. Unlike Verdi's The Force of Destiny, a weakly thought- through piece with a lot of musical padding, a ludicrous plot, some glorious arias and a great last scene. The pro- gramme note for Nick Hytner's new pro- duction for the ENO rabbits on about it being 'increasingly representative of our confused and uncertain post-modern cul- ture', but I think it's just a dreadful mess, beyond redemption. Hytner has done his best and provided a good enough show, devoid of bogus interpretative glosses but not very striking. The revolving stage was used to excess in the third act, but at this point the opera becomes so boring that you have to do something, however futile, to keep things going. The musical repdition was comparably strong but graceless. It sounded like early rather than middle Verdi, with loud and lusty playing from the orchestra under Mark Elder and loud and lusty singing from Edmund Barham (Alvaro), Jonathan Summers (Carlos) and Anne-Marie Owens (Preziosilla). What refinement and sensibil- ity there was came exclusively from Josephine Barstow as Leonora. She may not command the colour and bloom of a true spinto soprano; the physical resources of her voice may be limited; but she knows a thing or two about phrasing Verdi, as her finely tuned account of 'Pace, pace, nno Dio' amply proved. I only wish I could fall in love with her. But there is something buttoned-up about her on stage, something bookish that holds me back. I always feel she is giving the class a demonstration of How It Should Be Done rather than expos- ing herself to a character. Opera-singing should be overwhelmingly sexy, and I fear that the admirable Miss Barstow is simplY not my erotic cup of tea.
`Oh no! It's visually challenged Pew and the non-white spot!'