- Associated Press - Sunday, August 8, 2010

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA (AP) - The queen murders her husband; their son kills his mother, and there are hints of incest everywhere. Home to the sweetness and light associated with Mozart, Salzburg on Sunday was in the grip of a darker and grimmer genre of opera.

A new production of Richard StraussElektra staged at the Salzburg Festival was brilliant, in part because of its psychological nuances.

Fin de Siecle Vienna was the home of Freud and Jung at the same time that Strauss librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was active. Their influence on their fellow Austrian is reflected in the opera’s focus on the dark side of humanity.

The Greek mythological character Elektra has given her name to the complex popularized by Jung: a daughter who is sexually attracted to her father, and the opera suggests that and more; that the tragic heroine also has feelings for her brother Orest that exceed normal sibling love.

Such currents were subliminal in Sunday’s production, which hewed close to the original myth: Elektra plots the death of her mother, who has her husband Agamemnon murdered in the bath so she can replace him with her lover. Brother Orest, banished and thought dead, returns to kill both, and Elektra expires on stage, her life’s work _ revenge _ done.

A story line full of doom and gloom _ and so it was on stage.

Courtyard walls tilted at crazy angles and a buckled yard covered with half-open graves form the backdrop for what is surely the longest mad scene of any opera _ the rantings and invocations of Elektra, disheveled and wild eyed as she clutches the cloak of her murdered father.

Irene Theorin owned the role, with dramatic skills nearly matching her vocal ability _ and that was because she was perfect vocally.

At full volume most of the time over an orchestra originally set for 111 musicians, she was unflinching for all of her time on stage, which was for all of the opera except for the opening minutes. Her voice was pure and broad, her diction near perfect.

In respect to the orchestra, Strauss himself expressed embarrassment at what he had wrought in terms of instrumental power, joking during rehearsals for the first premiere that it was not loud enough because he was still able to hear a soloist.

No such problems Sunday, partly due to conductor Daniele Gatti, who kept his ensemble muscular without opening all stops in the pit. Which is not to say that the brass section didn’t bray, and the strings didn’t pulsate _ but not to the point that the singers were unheard during crucial crescendos.

But back to the stage for more praise. Waltraud Meier was a convincingly terrified Klytamnestra, the cowering mother tortured by dreams of indescribable horror; Eva-Maria Westbroek as Chyrisothemis, Elektra’s younger sister who _ imprisoned in the courtyard with her sister _ yearns for a life of a “woman’s lot,” marriage and children, and Rene Pape as Orest, the brother thought dead but come back to avenge his father. Great acting, great voices.

And behind the scenes; director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who knows enough not to mess with the message unless he can improve it _ which he does in the dying minutes, where the door to the courtyard finally opens to reveal Klytamnestra, hanging on a meat hook in a blood-smeared white-tiled abattoir.

And lest we think that all evil is banished, he suddenly has spider-like black clad creatures scrabbling from those grave pits as the stage grows dark _ and juxtaposing themselves between Orest and his virginal younger sister.

To prevent who knows what new sin?

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