Elektra Asmik Grigorian as Chrysothemis - Photo by Algirda Bakas

© SF / Bernd Uhlig
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Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s eponymous drama, based on the tragedy by Sophocles, was first performed in Berlin in 1903, directed by Max Reinhardt. Richard Strauss was in the audience, and he felt the encounter with Hofmannsthal to be guided by fate. In a letter in 1906, he asked Hofmannsthal to ‘give me the right of first refusal for anything in your hand that lends itself to composition. Your manner corresponds so closely to my own, we were born for one another and shall certainly produce something beautiful together, if you remain faithful to me’. That same year, Richard Strauss began to compose his one-act opera. Three years later, on 25 January 1909, the world premiere took place in Dresden, with resounding success.

The Festival production is directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who made his successful Salzburg Festival debut in 2018 with Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids. Franz Welser-Möst, to whom the Salzburg Festival owes many unforgettable performances of Richard Strauss’ works, conducts the Vienna Philharmonie and the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus. The role of Elektra will be embodied by the Lithuanian rising star Aušrine Stundyte. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner sings the role of Clytemnestra, Michael Laurenz that of Aegisthus and Derek Welton appears as Orestes. Chrysothemis will be sung by Asmik Grigorian, who won the audience and critics over as Salome in 2018. For the centenary, she returns for another Strauss opera at the Felsenreitschule. The premiere takes place on 1 August 2020.

Terrace Talk with Krzysztof Warlikowski and Franz Welser-Möst

Krzysztof Warlikowski and Franz Welser-Möst. Photos: SF/Anne Zeuner

(SF, 29 July 2020) The danger of becoming inebriated with the opulence of sound and losing control is particularly great for a conductor in Richard Strauss’ music, says Franz Welser-Möst after the main orchestra rehearsal for Elektra at the Salzburg Festival. It takes great discipline, he adds, to grasp the composer’s genius when it came to orchestration. The closer he looks at the score, the more infinite details he notices. He professes sympathy with Karajan, who once said that one should not conduct Elektra past the age of 60. Fortunately, he is just this side of the curve, as he will celebrate his 60th birthday in Salzburg in August. The score demands everything from a triple piano to a triple forte, and the rapid changes are quite challenging.

Welser-Möst describes the collaboration with Ausrine Stundyte, who is singing the role of Elektra, as felicitous. “Ausrine is not a steely-voiced Elektra, which is so often the case. She is a fragile, child-like, vulnerable Elektra, a complex figure instead of a harpy,” he says, describing her as a highly intelligent singer whose every fibre goes into embodying the role. “She has astounded me every day, bringing out facets in the score which I would not have dared to hope for,” he adds. In Strauss’ works, the libretto text is invariably complemented by a subtext delivered through the motifs and key signatures of the music. There are very few singers as skilled in understanding and internalizing this subtext as Ausrine Stundyte. The orchestra, in this case the Vienna Philharmonic, is also required to be very flexible, going to the extremes of expressivity and playing hot and cold in immediate succession.

When asked to describe his take on Strauss’ music, director Krzysztof Warlikowski ponders the fragility of words and meanings, as well as the ambition to merge music and libretto. Hugo von Hofmannsthal added nothing but psychoanalysis to Greek mythology. Memory is an important element in this, he says, as the realities of past and present intertwine. In his production, his ambition is to introduce the figures not only when they enter the stage, but to prepare their entries. Strauss and Hofmannsthal assumed that the viewer would be familiar with Greek mythology and the family constellations of the House of Atreus. Warlikowski has added a prologue to the opera recounting the back story. However, he adds, it will not do any harm to refresh one’s knowledge of Greek mythology in order to understand the deep need for revenge portrayed in the opera.

“I owe the discovery of how monolithic Elektra’s feelings are to Franz Welser-Möst,” says the director. Sometimes he has the feeling that Elektra is rather masculine, so loud and weighed down with the baggage of antiquity, but then the female element suddenly comes to the fore. Elektra may wear armour, but inside it she is very feminine, almost girl-like, says Warlikowski. Unlike Elektra, Chrysothemis, the role sung by Asmik Grigorian, is more alive and present, the more normal of the two. The sisters’ mother, Clytemnestra, sung by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, seems very close to death. Both she and Elektra are victims, but Elektra is also a perpetrator, he explains.

“It was impressive for me to see what Krzysztof Warlikowski is doing here,” says conductor Franz Welser-Möst. “He tries to forge relations between these psychologically damaged figures, spinning very delicate threads between the figures with great sensitivity.” He also offers short and bright insights into the inner life of the family – like lightning bolts illuminating the action, the conductor adds. Elektra is the 83rd opera premiere of his life. Welser-Möst finds working in Salzburg gratifying, praising the Festival’s ability to create an almost familial atmosphere, enabling the artists to work on a great piece for weeks without interruption.

A happy end? – Yes, in a certain way, says Krzysztof Warlikowski, for the children’s goal is achieved, revenge has been exacted. However, with it comes death. When Orestes has almost descended into a state of madness and is declared innocent toward the end of the piece, that puts an end to revenge, the director explains. It is the year zero, when forgiveness begins and humanity can make a fresh start.

Interview with Asmik Grigorian, who will embody the role of Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis in the summer of 2020:

Let us start with a general question: what defines a good singer?

A truly good singer is strong. He or she must work hard at improving, have a good sense of humour and be able to deal with failure or negative reviews. The strength is needed most of all to remain true to oneself.

What is the relationship between the feeling good singers must have and their technique?

When I began, my feelings were way superior to my technique. That got me into many difficult situations. Many young singers have the same experience. I lose 99 percent of myself in a role, my own control is only about one percent. This year in Salzburg, however, where I was allowed to sing Salome again, was a different experience, and that made my very happy.

Would you tell us about it?

It felt as if Asmik and Salome were merging. There was no border. To me that was a whole new feeling, and therefore it is difficult to talk about it. I held the reins 100 percent, but at the same time I was Salome 100 percent. I loved it.

It reminds me of the demands Lee Strasberg made of actors. They were to merge completely with their role. The problem is, how do you find your way into a role and then out again? After the performance, you are no longer Madame Butterfly or Salome, but Asmik Grigorian.

That is the most difficult part of our profession. You can only do it if you manage to distance yourself again from a role. You cannot go through life as Salome. I need a lot of energy to manage that transition. It is hard work.

How come you managed to put so much emotion into your roles from the very beginning?

All my life, I have had a nickname: Princess of Feelings. I have always been very emotional, which was not always easy, but I would not have wanted it any other way. To me it is the only way I can live, and the only way I can sing. The good thing is that I can trust my feelings; they show me the right way.

Two years ago, the Salzburg Salome catapulted you into the absolute world elite. Has your life changed since this success?

Of course much has changed since that time, but some things haven’t. I still work like I used to, that is very important to me. The success with Salome brought me the privilege of making my own choices about what to do and what not. But now I must also deal with the great responsibility I bear. So far, I have managed well; let’s hope it stays that way. Success is a wonderful, but also a dangerous gift.

Audiences coming to hear you in a concert or opera performance expect an Asmik Grigorian in top form. However, that is not something one can deliver every time.

Of course not. My problem, however, is not the others, but myself. I do not have to prove to you what I can do. The audience comes with an open heart; they look forward to seeing me. At the same time, my own expectations of myself keep rising. I always try to give my best, and sometimes even a little bit more than that. With Salome, I went to my utter limits. And now I ask myself: what is the next step?

Which singer role models did your parents offer you by their own example?

I am very fortunate, for the two of them were totally different. I was always confronted with two very different attitudes of what it means to be a singer. From my mother I inherited discipline and the certainty that I can trust my intuition. My father gave me something very different, and that is probably the reason I became a singer.

Do tell us more!

He was an outstanding opera singer, but he also knew how to enjoy life. He told me: you have to be good on stage, Asmik, but the most important thing in life is your family, friends, life, sunshine. If he had not shown me what it means to be a really good singer and to enjoy life at the same time, I would not have chosen this profession.

Was it easier to enjoy life after Salome?

Well, I am completely booked out until 2024, that is when my daughter turns seven and will go to school. I am currently wondering which country to send her to school in, and to which school. That will also change many things for me. But don’t worry: I already know how to enjoy life, certainly also in Salzburg this coming summer.

You will sing the role of Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss‘ Elektra. Do Strauss’ emotional outbursts suit your voice?

My voice loves Strauss. There are roles which require a lot of effort; that is a problem I never had with Strauss. I think it is the colour of my voice that suits Strauss so well, but that is something others must judge.

You are performing the role of Chrysothemis for the first time on the opera stage; so far you have only sung it in concert. The role is quite different from Salome.

Yes, both technically and regarding the emotional level. But I am looking forward to it – Chrysothemis is a fighter. Like Salome, she is a woman who must make decisions in a difficult situation, decisions that might make her a different person. Sometimes I think that all my roles have this point in common – as if I were always playing the same role.

How do you deal with the psychological, even psychoanalytical grounding of the opera? Have you studied this?

No, I don’t do that. I do everything from my gut, from my feeling. I don’t try to understand what Verdi or Strauss were trying to say. I know how I feel in a role, and that is what I offer.

Does your imagination work more visually? The director of Salome, Romeo Castellucci, is known for his powerful imagery.

No, that is not the decisive factor either. I am more strongly guided by the music than the visuals.

After Romeo Castellucci in the case of Salome, in Elektra you are working with another extremely interesting director, Krzysztof Warlikowski, who is known for his interpretations which can be radical. How do you deal with powerful production concepts?

I have no problem with powerful concepts; in the end the question is whether the performance works or not. That is why I don’t like the term Regietheater, or director’s theatre – interpretations are simply a part of opera. I am an open-minded person, I think a director has the right to tell his story. As a singer, I am part of a team that tells his story, and of course my own as well.

You are spending your fourth summer in a row this coming season in Salzburg. Apart from opera, is there something you are particularly looking forward to?

I am looking forward to everything. Salzburg has become such an important place in my life; it has even become a home. There are many people there whom I feel close to. My heart is alive in Salzburg.


Salzburg Festival