Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Elektra demands revenge!

Jean Berain pour le char du Soleil, à la dernière scène de Phaéton (livret de Quinault; musique de Lully)
From its beginning at the end of the 16th century, the spectacle has been an important part of the multi-media genre of opera. In the above drawing, Jean Berain sketches a machine representing Phaéton's chariot in the Lully opera presented at Versailles in 1683. Audiences always wanted something bigger than the last opera, going back all the way to Peri's Dafne in 1598. Lully had the latest theatrical technology available to him, and he wowed his audience and his King with special musical and theatrical effects; in other words, a spectacle.

Between then and today we've seen spectacle's role in opera rise and fall as fashions for naturalism or surrealism or minimalism or magic realism come and go. The complete takeover of the movies by CGI, 3D and other technology-enhanced goodies has raised the bar in terms of what audiences expect. Nowadays we feel it's our right to be amazed, and more amazed than we were last time. It's also led to a bit of a backlash where practical effects (live, non-digital special effects) become more important, re-balancing the mix with those effects  added in post-production (as in the amazing Mad Max: Fury Road). And of course live special effects are pretty much the only thing available in a live medium like opera.

There's a counter-balance to the bigger-is-better spectacle, even for an opera as blood-soaked as Elektra, the Freudian nightmare remix of ancient Greek myth put together by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss. This less-is-more idea has the enormous bottom-line advantage. Even with this amount of blood in the TV teaser, the Norrlands Operan 2014 production of Elektra might have led to a relatively subdued affair, in the style of Hitchcock's Psycho. But no, with the frightening vision of Director Carlus Padrissa and the help of the Spanish theatrical collective La Fura Dels Baus they went big.
Blood is gushing forth in the barrack square.
Elektra is biding her time.
Enormous steel giants are rising.
Elektra curses her mother.
A forest is set on fire at Umestan.
Elektra demands revenge! 

Just how big you'd only know if you were there in Umeå in August of 2014, in front of the largest opera stage in the world. But you'll also get a pretty good idea from this really special DVD/Blu-ray from Unitel Classics.

Spectacle by itself is pretty empty, but that is definitely not the case here. The singing and acting of the principal singers is absolutely outstanding, beginning with the electrifying performance of Ingela Brimberg in the title role. Put Brimberg on an empty stage with a black fright wig and an axe, and she would provide a good percentage of the sheer horror we get from this performance. She's that good. A great deal of credit must also go to Rumon Gamba who keeps what might have been a spectacularly chaotic project from spinning out of control. That it didn't is due to his steadfast reliance on the music of Strauss and the drama of von Hofmannsthal. That's the real bottom line.

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