With this performance, the Staatsoper Berlin became the fourth of the six co-producing houses to stage the late Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra, first seen in Aix-en-Provence in 2013. It also restored Evelyn Herlitzius to centre stage after Nina Stemme had taken over the title role for the staging’s New York run.

Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) © Monika Rittershaus
Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra)
© Monika Rittershaus

Herlitzius’s performance remains astonishing, both vocally and dramatically. She stalks the stage with a feral energy that is unleashed in sharp, unpredictable movements; despite the downtrodden, subjugated nature of her existence, you’re never in doubt about the wild-eyed, overpowering determination to exact revenge. The voice itself starts off a little curdled and acidic in tone – Stemme’s is undoubtedly the more ‘conventional’ instrument – but those characteristics mellow and settle into a big, exciting sound, softer-edged than some, but unstinting in its power. Her technique, in which phrases often feel as though they’re being generously bowed by a string player, seems untiring, still capable, after an hour of singing, of achieving heart-breaking lyricism in the Recognition Scene.

Her performance benefits, too, from the size of the Schiller Theater stage, where Richard Peduzzi’s massive grey sets feel more intimate than they did when I saw the production at La Scala. Here it also felt as though Herlitzius was allowed to spend more time nearer the front of the stage, to the benefit of both drama and acoustics.

And she receives some excellent support, not least from Adrianne Pieczonka’s terrific Chrysothemis. The Canadian soprano’s voice seems over the last couple of years to have shed a little of its lyric quality to develop distinct heroic edge, and here she sang with thrilling fearlessness. Michael Volle, new to the production, is an eloquent Orest and acts with impressive detail and intensity. Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra is acted no less compellingly, even if it’s difficult fully to ignore the wear and tear in the voice, or the lack of meat on the bones of its mid-to-lower range.

Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) © Monika Rittershaus
Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra)
© Monika Rittershaus

Further fixtures retained from the original cast include the veterans Donald McIntyre (Chéreau’s Bayreuth Wotan) as the Old Servant and Franz Mazura (Chéreau’s Paris Dr Schön) as the Pfleger des Orest, as well as Roberta Alexander’s Fifth Maid – part of a luxurious line-up of maids and attendants that now also includes Anna Samuil and Marina Prudenskaya. We also here had another new veteran in Cheryl Studer as the Overseer and Confidante, and a couple further roles were freshly filled: Stephan Rügamer, a little overparted, was Aegisth; Florian Hoffmann, also, it seemed, overparted, was the Young Servant.

The playing of the Staatskapelle was predictably virtuosic, and Daniel Barenboim conducted them with the work’s larger structure always in view. Here was a symphonic approach in which the myriad instrumental details always seemed to exist in the context of a longer line. It was a supremely musical reading, but one that had its dramatic drawbacks: the jarring juxtapositions one feels as the massive scenes collide into one another occasionally felt smoothed over, while Elektra’s final dance was phrased rather too civilly, losing its brutal power. In fact, there were several moments of uncertainty in the final minutes, not least when Barenboim brought the orchestra in early at the end of Elektra’s big phrase: “Ob ich die Musik nicht höre? Es kommt doch aus mir”.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) and Michael Volle (Orest) © Monika Rittershaus
Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) and Michael Volle (Orest)
© Monika Rittershaus

Chéreau’s production also raises some questions. What feels like a determined attempt to work against the music on occasion seems designed to make us react thoughtfully rather than viscerally. In the final scene, for example, Elektra cuts short her dance long before the music itself stops dancing – a comment on the dance as well as the music being internal to her, perhaps, but a decision that allows tension and cumulative power to dissipate. Similarly, the brutal musical depiction of her collapse is not matched by any stage action: she's long since sat herself down. 

Chéreau’s blurring of the lines between scenes and of the characters’ entrances and exits – a bit like the directorial equivalent of keeping the sustain pedal down – is arguably well matched by Barenboim’s ‘symphonic’ take on the score. But the added prologue, in which we see the Maids going silently about their business for several minutes, undercuts the opera’s opening musical gesture – and tries the patience.

Where the production undeniably shows its quality is in the Personenregie – refreshed and taken over here by Peter McClintock and Vincent Huguet – and in the detailed creation of a larger community in the palace. This gives a certain added depth to the drama, even if it also arguably distracts from its main focus on occasion. Ultimately though, despite those quibbles, there’s no arguing with the fact that the production brings out some extraordinary performances from its principals, and from Herlitzius and Pieczonka in particular. 

****1