Die Fledermaus and Elektra: Emotional trauma and tortured self-examination at the opera

This autumn, there's a generous helping of dark, psychological drama available in London's opera houses.

Elektra; Die Fledermaus
Royal Opera House; English National Opera

Psychosexual malaise is the order of the day in London’s opera houses this autumn. Whether you prefer it served up with comedy in English National Opera’s Die Fledermaus or horror at the Royal Opera House’s Elektra is up to you, but either way you can expect lashings of emotional trauma and tortured self-examination.

Unfortunately in the case of Fledermaus the audience themselves are the victims of most of the trauma, and director Christopher Alden undertakes none of the self-examination. Strauss’s Rosalinde and Gabriel Von Eisenstein find themselves strapped to Dr Freud’s couch in fin-de-siecle Vienna, unable to engage in the easy, waltzing plot because they are too busy being analysed and essentialised. We discover Rosalinde (Julia Sporsen) asleep in bed, beset by erotic dreams and bats, who eventually morph into the vengeaful Dr Falke (Richard Burkhard). Above the action an oversized version of the Eisenstein’s pocket-watch (or perhaps Dali’s) swings mesmerically back and forth, jolting us out of the action every time things threaten to get too real.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Alden strips his characters of all but their comedic shells, leaving Rian Lois’s Adele as a hollow caricature of maribou feathers and maddening silliness, Alfred (Edgaras Montvidas) as a posing buffoon and Rosalinde herself as a cipher. This is a comedy desperately in search of some psychological subtext, and Sporsen finds herself caught between the explicit and the implicit and sadly fails to sing her way out of it. Her czardas is pretty enough, but lacks any real hit of exotic sex-appeal.

Preserving much of the spoken dialogue (perhaps unwisely, given singers’ habitual problems with acting), Alden condemns his cast to long swathes of lukewarm wit, that curdles uncomfortably with the unexpected addition of a jackbooting Nazi Frosch (Jan Pohl). Andrew Shore’s Frank fares better, salvaging not only humour but even a little humanity from the situation. He is aided by the enchanting Jennifer Holloway as a shamelessly overdone (but no less engaging) Orlovsky, all twitching neurosis and convulsing Russian vowels.

The ENO orchestra prances gamely through Strauss’s score but under the direction of Eun Sun Kim they never quite find that excess, that giddy ecstasy that has to underpin these bourgeois little melodies if they are not to sink under their own smugness. It’s a problem to which Alden isn’t immune either. He has painted his stage loudly in the colours and conceits of Freud’s Vienna, but look even the smallest bit deeper and there’s just an emptiness where true dramatic subconscious and subtext should be. I would go so far as to diagnose Alden’s patient with a terminal strain of vapidity.

All is darker and infinitely deeper over at the Royal Opera House where Charles Edwards’ 2005 Elektra returns – a brutal triumph of musical and psychological violence. It all starts in the pit with Andris Nelsons’ orchestra. There’s weight here certainly, and as much volume as you’re ever likely to hear in this building, but more importantly there’s a clarity to Strauss’s strata of sound – the acid-bright trumpets and bosky horns looming ominously mid-texture.

Edwards’s set collides the worlds of ancient Greece and Weimar Germany, reframing the bloody atrocities of the earlier era in the context of Straus’s own age. Echoing an opera through the age of its composition is a classic technique, and one that works rather better for Edwards here than Alden at ENO. While Alden’s new world feels pasted on, Edwards embeds his action deeply, maintaining the integrity of both original and reworked contexts. He is helped by the humanity of Strauss’s writing, exposing and raking over the most potent and shameful essence of his characters, from Chrysothemis’ desperate yearning for “a woman’s destiny” to Elektra’s desire to play the man and lose herself in dominance – “I will encircle you with tendrils, I will sink myself into you”.

It takes almost an hour for any male characters to enter Strauss’s musical landscape, and in this world of women (and the sonic light-headedness of this unique resonance) our ears attune anew. In Christine Goerke’s Elektra we have a voice and presence that’s raw and dangerous. Completely in control vocally (as she demonstrates so overwhelmingly in the Recognition Scene), she still manages to find a roughness that speaks more convincingly than any amount of vocal ease of her conviction. She has her match in Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis – warmly enveloping and never less than lovely.

The maddened perversions of Klytamnestra’s eroticism-turned-inwards risk stridency in Michaela Schuster’s hands, but are digested by the scope of the production which plays to extremes. Iain Paterson’s Orest by contrast finds muted delicacy in his brief appearance – foremost among a strong supporting cast.

It’s perhaps unfair to set Johan Strauss’s feather-light score against Richard Strauss’s and expect it to compete, but in reimagining Fledermaus as a Freudian fantasy of Ids and Egos Alden made it fair game. Skin-deep psychology is never going to be a winner, and it’s just unfortunate that Edwards was on hand to show us just what we were missing.

Rhian Lois as Adele in the ENO's 'Die Fledermaus'.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State