Martin Kušej’s Elektra on DVD

Posted on June 23, 2012

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Strauss-Hofmannsthal Elektra. Zurich Opera House production 2003, 2005; Arthaus DVD 2012. Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, stage director Martin Kušej. Elektra: Eva Johansson, Klytämnestra Marjana Lipovšek.

Eva Johansson is a perfect Elektra.  Unlike many other singers known for the role, she is comparatively young and made even younger by the punk drop-out aesthetics (hoodies, running shoes, biker gloves, bleached Blondie hair with overgrown roots, rejection of femininity when all other women of her family are embracing it). Her singing makes this sharp-edged role almost pleasant – there’s almost a creamy continuity to the vocal line, and a tight, muscular vibrato. It’s impossible to find any flaws to Johansson’s acting. Making Elektra close to naturalistic, somebody with a human, recognizable psychology is an incredible achievement.

Melanie Diener is excellent as Chrysothemis, tall, made up and coiffed, wearing a dress, not at all a naïve ingénue, but a mature sibling facing the facts of life in patriarchy with quiet resignation. Her voice also achieves the qualities of melodic legato in a role that’s exactly the opposite. Alfred Muff as Orest and Rudolf Schasching as Aegisth are equally solid. The only problem in the casting, and unfortunately a very central one, is Marjana Lipovšek’s Klytämnestra, or rather her costuming. Not having read the full cast list beforehand, at Klytämnestra’s first entrance I found myself shocked that a tenor was cast in a skirt role for such an important female character.  About 30 minutes later in the DVD, I was still comparing this cross-dressing male singer with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Arnalta in L’Aix Poppea, finding makeup similarities, grumbling about men taking over female roles… Then I looked at the cast list. Of all the strange things in this production, the strangest one was having to switch the gender of one of the principals half way through. It takes particularly disastrous case of make up and costuming to exaggerate Klytämnestra’s performative femininity to the point of drag queenness. A camp Klytämnestra can undermine an entire production; it’s a testament to its other qualities that this production remains remarkable in spite this wobble at its centre.

Kušej combines a nightmarish world with skewed, dreamwork logic and a contemporary realist setting. Elektra dwells in what seems to be the only dark room of a large and busy household. Multiple doors keep opening, all leading to rooms full of light and activity. The doors are white and padded from the other side, not Elektra’s, and all other characters come from there and return there. The girls arrive in the first scene in regular clothes, and change into sexy maids before disappearing in. Lost-looking women with ripped clothes come out in other scenes. In her first entrance, the Klytämnestra retinue are actually the three dazed skinny girls wearing nothing but hastily buttoned jackets. Naked bodies of both sexes pour in later and spill out before the mother and the daughter in a horror version of Spencer Tunick’s bodyscapes. It would be easy to conclude that there’s almost a perpetual orgy happening in the house of Aegisth – along the lines of Kraus-Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut, but with women as sexual slaves — were it not for the hints that there’s something possibly even worse taking place, requiring padded doors and medically clean rooms and lighting, and a high turn-over of people.