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Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis and Susan Bullock as Elektra [Photo by Clive Barda]
13 Nov 2008

A powerful, poignant Elektra at the Royal Opera House, London

“This won’t be a total Schlacht of sound” said the director, Charles Edwards, of this production. Instead, it’s a strikingly intelligent interpretation, focusing on the deeper aspects of the drama.

Richard Strauss : Elektra

Susan Bullock (Elektra), Anne Schwanewilms (Chrysothemis), Jane Henschel (Klytemnestra), Johan Reuter (Orestes), Frank van Aken (Aegisth), Frances McCafferty, Monika-Evelin Liiv, Kathleen Wilkinson, Elizabeth Woollett, Eri Nakamura (Maids) Charles Edwards, (Director, Design and Lighting), Mark Elder (Conductor), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, London.

Above: Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis and Susan Bullock as Elektra [Photo by Clive Barda]


Despite his extensive experience, this is Mark Elder’s first Elektra. He was adamant that the characterization should reflect the music. Elektra’s part is surprisingly tender at times. Twisted by fate, she’s become wild, but beneath the madness still lurks the real woman Elektra might have been. This makes her tragedy all the more poignant. The real drama here doesn’t lie in decibels. Orchestrally, this was superb. Elder understands the inner dynamic of the music, grasping the fine detail sometimes lost in the vast sweep. Harsh, dry percussion punctuates the beating of the maids. They, too, are victims of the brutal regime. The fifth maid, who protests, is destroyed, as Elektra will be. The playing was so well judged that this would have made a superb recording, even without the visuals.

Yet what visuals ! A monstrous Bauhaus monolith is set at an awkward angle against a Greek temple. These architectural fault lines remind us that Elektra is powerful political commentary. Klytemnestra murdered Agamemnon to seize his kingdom, but she can’t enjoy power, her nightmares pursue her. Elektra is duty bound to avenge her father, but she’s irrevocably warped by it, and cannot live past retribution. As for Orestes, who will now be king ? Neither Strauss nor von Hofmannsthal make this explicit in the opera, but they knew, and their audiences knew, Orestes continues to be punished by the Gods. This production was conceived at the start of the Iraq war although it references that turning point in European history, just before the collapse of the Austrian, German and Russian empires. If anything, recent events like the failure of the banking system, reinforce the point that power is an illusion, easily destroyed. Nothing’s stable : Aegisth whirls round, dying, in a revolving door.

In this palace, family values are dysfunctional. There are disturbing sexual undercurrents in all relationships. Perceptively, however this production doesn’t play up the kinkiness, but places it firmly in the context of the power crazed society around the palace. Everyone is trapped in this brutal situation. Hence the production accentuates the importance of the maids and subsidiary characters, expanding them as silent roles.

Susan Bullock as Elektra is outstanding. Because this interpretation makes her sympathetic, Bullock can develop the more subtle aspects of Elektra’s personality. She’s no screaming mad harpie. There are many traces of the woman she might have become. She mocks the maids for having children, yet understands why Chrysothemis wants babies. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis (beautifully realized by Anne Schwanewilms), is lucidly defined. “Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren wie du “, cries Chrysothemis. It helps explain why, at her moment of triumph, Elektra deflates. She has nothing to sustain her but vengeance and must die when she achieves it. Her final dance is slow, barely perceptible, as if she’s sinking into the very ground, carrying the “burden of happiness” which no longer has meaning.

Elektra_ROH_002.pngA scene from Elektra [Photo by Clive Barda]

Orestes is the finest part I’ve seen Johan Reuter play so far, and it suits him well. So much more can be made of Klytemnestra and Aegisth than Jane Henschel and Frank van Aken presented, but in theatrical terms this was no real loss, as it didn’t pull focus away from the sisters and Orestes, and the wider drama around them. Rarely does lighting merit a mention, but this time it was exceptionally effective. Agamemnon features prominently as a silent role, his “ghost” projected onto the walls of his palace. When Elektra sings to Orestes of “Der milchige des Monds”, a faint, but persistent light shines on the corrugated panoply above her. It’s a tiny detail, easily missed, but that moment of beauty throws the tragedy into high relief. This Elektra becomes more profoundly moving, the more it unfolds.

Anne Ozorio

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