A heaven-sent window of opportunity has opened for the Salzburg Festival. The spikes in coronavirus cases across the world suggest that travel restrictions could soon become prohibitive again, so this year’s modified festival was lucky to start during a lull in the bad news.
Salzburg was keen to go ahead at all costs, as 2020 marks the festival’s 100th anniversary. Health protocols have been rigorously enforced and a reduced version of the originally planned events is better than nothing.
Despite social distancing, the audience at the first-night performance of Strauss's Elektra did not look too sparse. Many more will have seen the production live online on the Arte channel and the webcast will remain available (except in the US) free of charge until the end of October.
Although Richard Strauss was one of the festival’s founding fathers, Elektra did not make its bow in Salzburg until 1957, eight years after the composer’s death. The cast this time may not equal some of its celebrated predecessors at this address, but it is a high-octane show, visually impressive on screen.
The panoramic stage of the Felsenreitschule is an open invitation to a director with imagination. Krzysztof Warlikowski sets the opera in a spacious bathhouse with a long pool, suggestive of where Agamemnon met his bloody end. The maids bathe there, purifying themselves from the evil of the palace. The guilty wash their hands in it. Agamemnon himself prowls the stage waiting for vengeance and another room to the side shows events parallel to the story — a many-layered staging of what is a taut, focused opera.
It is fortunate that singers have had a few years to hone their acting skills before all these online relays. The Freudian subconscious is alive and kicking in Warlikowski’s production and each of the cast manages to be credible even in close-up.
The Elektra of Ausrine Stundyte comes across as a sullen ball of intensity, even when her voice sounds less than ideally focused. Asmik Gregorian, so memorable as Salome a couple of years ago, is a proud, disdainful Chrysothemis, who gets down in a businesslike way to clearing up the corpses at the end. There is no need to open the opera by giving Klytämnestra a monologue from Aeschylus, but Tanja Ariane Baumgartner declaims it with authority and goes on to sing strongly. Derek Welton and Michael Laurenz, as Orest and Aegisth, fill out their characters vividly.
All are helped by scrupulous balancing of the orchestra from conductor Franz Welser-Möst, even if television or laptop speakers are not the best way to experience Strauss’s kaleidoscopic sound. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with no apparent reduction in numbers for social distancing, plays with immaculate detail.
Each day of this Salzburg Festival will bring a live webcast. Other performances will include Igor Levit in Beethoven sonatas, various chamber music events, and concerts by the Mozarteum Orchestra, Camerata Salzburg and the Vienna Philharmonic.
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