According to Richard Strauss scholar Alfred Kalisch, there was such media hype surrounding the première of Elektra in Dresden in 1909 that local stores were full of tacky souvenirs such as Elektra “boots, spoons and beer mugs”. For modern day merchandising, Schindler Group or Otis Elevator Company should have sponsored Uwe Eic Laufenberg’s Wiener Staatsoper production as dual elevators completely dominate the stage and action. Perhaps Laufenberg was mischievously taking von Hofmannsthal’s title literally as “Tragödie in einem Aufzug” can mean tragedy in one “Act” or “Lift”. The opera concludes with the open-fronted elevators moving continuously and distractingly up and down, full of all manner of ghoulishness including bloody corpses, skeletons and – in a blatant borrowing from Stanley Kubrick – the word "Tötet” scrawled in blood on one of the panels.

Waltraud Meier (Klytaemnestra) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Waltraud Meier (Klytaemnestra)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Rolf and Marianne Glittenberg’s vaguely timeless mise-en-scène was a basement coal-cellar with a large white-tiled shower area with Mycenaean maidens in confusing crypto-military costumes. Hofmannsthal’s meticulous stage directions were either forgotten or blithely ignored. Elektra was not a barely human “wild cat” with “disgusting, polluted” hair but a neatly coiffed school-mistress stereotype with a long ponytail. She doesn’t dig up the axe which dispatched her father in his bath but schlepps around a large suitcase containing not only the fatal chopper but a tatty uniform, a pistol and a grubby bathmat.

Klytaemnestra is not “über bedeckt mit Edelsteinen und Talismanen”  but adorned with two large Liberace-inspired rings and a flashy deco necklace. After some unrequited bisexual advances to persuade her pragmatic sister to be part of her patricide plan, Elektra delivers an hysterical top B flat “sei verflucht” not to the departing Chrysothemis but directly at the audience. In the closing “Schweig und tanze” scena, Elektra doesn’t drop dead like a manic dervish but is surrounded by preppy teenagers who do a few disco steps then whisk her off in a jolly Saturday Night Fever free for all. There was no brooding menace or depravity, no palpable evil, no impending doom, no acute psychosexual angst – just a mild family frisson with a bit of sibling incest to spice things up.

Johan Reuter (Orest) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Johan Reuter (Orest)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Vocally things were not much better although Johan Reuter sang Orest with a warm round timbre and a suitably noble presence. Waltraud Meier scored a personal triumph as Klytaemnestra in Patrice Cheréau’s acclaimed Aix-en-Provence production in 2013, but that was four years ago. The voice is not what it was. Laufenberg’s direction makes the contemptible queen stupefyingly bland, hardly the embodiment of evil who banishes her own son and tries to have him killed along with “every creature which crawls or flies” just to get a decent nights sleep. Surprisingly, Meier failed to give significant weight to the superb text, and even a line such as ‘wie ein Kleid, zefressen von den Motten” which legendary Klytaemnestras almost spit out rather than sang, was bleached of volume and venom.

Gun-Brit Barkmin has been singing Salome in Vienna of late but Chrysothemis requires a different vocal technique and a much more subtle stage presence. Her five exposed top B flats were all decidedly shrill and the requisite tender lyricism in “Kinder will ich haben!”, minimal. If anything, Barkmin’s characterization was much more manic than that of her certifiable sister.

Elena Pankratova has all the technical skills for this supremely demanding role but somehow failed to convince. There were some beautifully floated mid-range notes such as the pp F-natural “Vater” in the opening monologue and a Nilsson-esque top C on “der jauchzt” at the end of the confrontation with Klytaemnestra, but the overall characterization was more a churlish antisocial introvert rather than a deranged psychosexual patricide. Diction was far from pristine.

Elena Pankratova (Elektra) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Elena Pankratova (Elektra)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Scored for 111 players including four Wagner tubas, the orchestration for Elektra is unquestionably the pre-eminent component of the opera. Ingo Metzmacher seemed determined to keep the gigantic orchestral forces from overwhelming the singers which significantly lessened the impact of this diabolically dissonant and decibel-shattering score. The cacophony of thumpy marcato rhythms which proceed Klytaemnestra’s entry were not particularly demonic and most raspy sforzandi lacked bite. There was typically luscious playing from the Vienna strings in the short lyrical tutti following “zeig dich deinem Kind” and poignant portamenti in the recognition scene, but Metzmacher’s overall reading was too restrained. It was not until the concluding 30 bars when the Agamemnon triad motif was blasted out to raise the roof that the true power of this raw and raucous score was fully unleashed.