2020 sees the 100th Salzburg Festival, and the 111th year of Elektra’s existence. In this production they seem made for each, the vast Felsenreitschule the perfect backdrop, even with a socially-distanced audience, to Strauss and Hoffmansthal’s mighty mythical psychodrama. The Festival features drama as well as music, and here Sophocles’ original was embellished by Aeschylus.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra) © Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele
Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra)
© Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski adds a silent prelude showing the origin of the curse of the House of Atreus. Then Klytemnestra spoke into a microphone to justify her regicide to the Argives, adapted from her great speech in the Oresteia. This gives a more balanced view of the Queen, as victim as well as perpetrator, than usual. Only after all that did Welser-Möst unleash the Vienna Philharmonic in the opening Agamemnon motif. And since the dead king permeates the drama, here he was put onstage, not least to bear silent witness to the revenge wrought by his children.

Asmik Grigorian (Chrysothemis) and Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra) © Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele
Asmik Grigorian (Chrysothemis) and Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra)
© Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele

Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s stage design for the physical house of Atreus is dominated by the bath-house in which he was killed, and where the blood still bespatters the walls. A transparent box does duty as the palace interior in which the preludial events are shown, Klytaemnestra undertakes the rituals that supply her with blood, and where she meets her death. The costumes are modern, and Elektra, far from the usual scruff who rolls about in the courtyard filth, sports a nice frock and cardigan, and a handbag to hold the materials for her tobacco habit. Her sister Chrysothemis has a shiny pink leather two-piece, her mother the Queen in bright red with regal bling she claims has magical properties. Altogether the direction and design give us a coherent production, without the cavalier attitude to the text or curious additions of Castellucci's Salome.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Klytaemnestra) and Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra) © Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Klytaemnestra) and Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra)
© Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele

Salome was sung then, sensationally well, by Asmik Grigorian, who here sings Chrysothemis, and shows many of the same qualities, vocal and histrionic, with her piercingly bright soprano and eye-catching stage presence. She is an ideal foil to Elektra, somehow suggesting that, far from just the "normal" sister with her procreative instinct, Chrysotemis – who after all has exactly the same family history – is also damaged and trying to cope in her own way. Their mother, sung by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, convincingly conveyed Klytaemnestra’s nightmares with shivers in voice and body.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra) and Derek Welton (Orest) © Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele
Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra) and Derek Welton (Orest)
© Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele

Her son and nemesis Orest is well sung too by Derek Welton, though handicapped by an implausible Fairisle sweater. Perhaps the idea is that he needs to look as unlike an assassin as possible, and indeed as directed he gives an interesting take on the role, this Orest feeling almost unequal to the task the Gods have given him, and is so traumatised after it that he flees the stage along the first row of the stalls, fearing coronavirus much less than the Furies who will pursue him. As his sister Elektra Aušrinė Stundytė is outstanding. She was described admiringly by the conductor as “not a steely-voiced Elektra... a fragile, child-like, vulnerable Elektra, a complex figure instead of a harpy.” That is aided by her ability to sing this enormous role without ever seeming vocally overstretched, or resorting to a shriek to combat Strauss’ heavier orchestral moments.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra) © Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele
Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra)
© Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele

That owes something to Franz Welser-Möst’s delicate handling of the ppp to fff range of this score, and the instinctive feeling of the Philharmoniker for this composer. An Elektra conducted like Mendelssohnian fairy music, sung not shouted, just as Strauss required. Or maybe it was the squashed dynamics of streamed sound – oh, how we need to fill those empty seats again.


This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

Watch online
****1