From darkness into light

'Moses und Aron' shone through in Salzburg, while other works got caught up in their own concepts.

It was Leonie Rysanek's evening. The last night of the new Elektra production at this year's Salzburg Festival was also Rysanek's farewell to the stage. Her glittering career has lasted an extraordinary 47 years - she is now in her 70th - and has encompassed numerous starry appearances at the Festspielhaus. In all honesty, her final performance, in the role of Klytamnestra, was not one to cherish vocally, but the rapturous ovation she received was a just reward for a lifetime's achievement.

Hildegard Behrens in the title role carried the day, as an Elektra must. At the top of the range she was as commanding as ever, though the middle to low register over-exposed her strident, semi-vocalised mannerisms. Karen Huffstodt and John Brocheler were outstanding as Chrysothemis and Orest. Lorin Maazel risked sentimentality in his handling of the big tune recalling Elektra's happier family life, but the Vienna Philharmonic revelled in such passages of broad lyricism, within a full-bodied account of the score.

The arty, designer-ruin set for the palace (Ichiro Takada and Shigeaki Tsuchiya) is smoothly functional and, when flooded with blood-red lighting (by Yuji Sawada) for the murder scene, broodingly atmospheric. The final tableau - set split in two, Elektra prostrate before a blue backdrop of preternatural intensity - is a stunning coup de theatre. Yet Keita Asari's static, unimaginative direction does little to animate or elucidate the drama.

Herbert Wernicke's direction, set, costumes and lighting for his new Fidelio, on the other hand, combine to make a formidably concentrated conceptual unity. Wernicke's central idea is the movement from darkness to light, a polarity that translates metaphorically as incarceration / liberty, tyranny / freedom, obscurantism / enlightenment. The stage space is a steeply raked triangle, black on every surface, the only props an inordinately long (black), diagonally placed desk in Act 1, and some music-stands. All that distinguishes the black and white costumes of the prisoners from their guards are the gaolers' ties and caps. Florestan's cry from the dungeon, "Gott! welch' Dunkel hier!" ("God! what darkness here!"), emerges heart-rendingly from a pool of inky nothingness, and it is subsequently revealed that he is unfettered (just as tyranny is invisible). This fiercely monochrome stage-picture is banished in the final liberation scene by a blaze of colour. The chorus, sporting bright, modern, everyday clothes, fills the entire triangle. The seven principals, formally dressed, each occupy a music-stand at the front, the drama now purged of all theatrical detail.

Powerful as the symbolism is, I found the denouement curiously unmoving. That was not the fault of the performers, however, who made up a uniformly strong cast. Cheryl Studer, confident of delivery, sensitive of phrase, was outstanding, as were Rene Pape's Rocco, Ruth Ziesak's Marzelline and Peter Mattei's Don Fernando. Ben Heppner's Florestan was not far behind, though his tone was pinched at the top. Standing in for Georg Solti, Philippe Auguin gave no singers' cues - a flagrant dereliction of the conductor's duties - but his tightly controlled reading ill deserved the boorish boos it received from some parts of the auditorium.

Peter Stein's magnificent production of Moses und Aron repeated the success it enjoyed last year in Amsterdam. Schoenberg's opera is one of the most taxing in the repertoire. Not only does it pose a formidable technical challenge to principals, chorus and orchestra alike, but its dramaturgy stubbornly resists traditional criteria. If the debate between Moses and Aaron (over the communicability of God's message) has a cerebral, essentially unoperatic quality, it is Stein's achievement to have galvanised that debate into dramatic life, chiefly through his inspired use of the chorus as a chief protagonist.

Stein's direction plays virtuosically at the edges of naturalism. Moses and Aaron size each other up like a pair of fighters. The blinding light of revelation is just that: banks of powerful spots at the rear of the stage that force you to look away. Among the brilliant stage props are the burning bush, and Aaron's miracles (rod into serpent, water into blood) are cleverly, wittily done. Stein even dares to introduce humour into this starkly cerebral piece.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Netherlands Opera Chorus and the cast led by David Pittman-Jennings (Moses) and Chris Merritt (Aaron) all deserve the highest praise. For Pierre Boulez's ability to trace such coherent melodic threads through this enormously complex fabric, one can have only the profoundest admiration.

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