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Commentary

Charles Edwards
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Elektra at Royal Opera House

“Opera directing is very different to theatre directing”, says Charles Edwards, director of Elektra at the Royal Opera House this season. “It has to be the music that motivates you”. For this production, he works with Mark Elder, “an extraordinarily theatrically-minded conductor who sees theatre in everything he hears”.

Elektra at Royal Opera House — An interview with Charles Edwards

Above: Charles Edwards

 

Elektra is a kind of Holy Stück”, he adds. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted it at the Royal Opera House in 1910, a year after it was written, so it carries a venerable performance tradition. But every production is different. “It’s an opera with a fantastic inner logic to it, like Wozzeck, in terms of orchestral and psychological insight…. a kind of psychogram, drawing a picture of what’s happening in the minds of the characters. Citing the sequence where Klytemnestra recounts her traumatic dream, Edwards notes how close Strauss comes to atonality. The music wavers between tones because Klytemnestra can’t find her place emotionally. Strauss was writing well before Schoenberg, and conceptually this is very advanced. It’s as if the composer was on a “cliff edge, looking over into an abyss and pulling back.” Although there are elements of later Strauss in this music, the composer is on dangerous new ground.

Elektra also stands on the precipice in historic terms. This was the Vienna of Freud and artistic innovation. “Hofmannsthal’s libretto isn’t Wagnerian, it’s highly colloquial language, it was daring, yet he didn’t undertake lightly the task of reinterpreting the ancient tragedy in modern, psychological terms”. This was a pivot point in European history, nations tottering on the edge of the First World War, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires. Hence costumes which evoke Kaiser and Tsar, and sets which juxtapose ancient Greek ruins and early Bauhaus architecture. “The whole weight of history is pressing down”. It’s significant that the production was first conceived on the brink of the invasion of Iraq. If anything, the last five years have sharpened the focus. “We cannot ignore the past”. Klytemnestra wants to forget Agamemnon’s murder, but the truth catches up on her. The characters are locked in a cycle of retribution and violence. “Revenge, revenge, revenge” says Edwards, “it’s been going on since the beginning of mankind”.

“Ich trage die Last des Glückes”, Elektra carries the burden of the past, until she herself dies. Her final dance is not a dance of triumph – she doesn’t die in other versions of the legend, but in Hofmannsthal’s version, she is killed, just like those who killed her father, because she wanted vengeance too much. “That’s what that final C Major chord means”, says Edwards. As Mark Elder pointed out, it comes suddenly, in contrast to the minor keys that lead up to this point. “Strauss is turning a blinding light upon us” says Edwards, “This is not celebration, it’s interrogation : Is this what we really want ?” Elektra has been rehearsing her victory for a long time, but when it becomes reality, it finishes her off.

In this production, Edwards wants the music to come through clearly. “This won’t be a total Schlacht of sound, a generalised bloodbath of noise where you can’t really hear the words. The louder the orchestra, the more the singers have to force their voices and that lessens what they can really do”. Of course Elektra can be loud, but this can obscure the deeper levels of meaning. No diva “bathing in vast amounts of decibels”, then ? “Mark Elder knew absolutely that he wanted to avoid the caricature of Elektra as a mad harpie. A lot of her music is soft, amazingly tender. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis is fundamental. Elektra, for all her righteousness, is deeply damaged : everything that weiblich, human and fertile about her, she’s had to repress, yet she doesn’t hold it against her sister who stands for all she can never have”.

That’s why Edwards is so thrilled about Susan Bullock who will be this Elektra. “She understood, instinctively, she has an astonishing theatrical imagination. She is the greatest English singing actress in this role in the world”. Many who have heard Bullock will agree. Although she has created the part more than 50 times, she comes to the production with an open mind, eager to develop. Her experience counts. “Because of the physical requirements of opera, singers, like dancers, absolutely have to get the character ‘into their bodies’ and grow with it flexibly”.

Bullock’s approach to Elektra determines this characterization of Chrysothermis. “Nagellack”, a conductor once told Edwards, was the essence of the part, as if she had to be some hardened Jean Harlow vamp. “I don’t think Chrysothemis ever puts nail polish on” he says, however. She’s the one who believes in babies and intimacy. “She’s as strong as Elektra but more rational. Elektra has this hallucinogenic monologue where she’s fantasizing about revenge, and Chrysothemis comes in quietly and warns her that the immediate problem pressing on her is that their mother wants to lock her up. Anne Schwanewilms will be singing the role.

Chrysothemis is pure, but Elektra has been corrupted, along the way, and not simply by her father’s death. Has Aegisth abused her ? His hold over Klytemnestra is sexual, but this production shows that her body has collapsed, while he is still “this priapic power-crazed individual who satisfies himself wherever he can”. That’s why the maids are pregnant ! Aegisth doesn’t think beyond the moment any more than Klytemnestra can think of the past. There’s an unhealthy power struggle between Aegisth and Elektra. “We’re playing this as a kind of sex game, as she can be quite dominating as she has some kind of power over him. Maybe she can tell her mother he’s fiddling with her ? there’s mileage in that. There’s no way out for Elektra, no sexual release or outflow. It comes from a poisoned place because she’s had to stifle all the natural warmth and sexual maturity she should have been able to grow into.” We can imagine Freudian things now that Hofmannsthal would not have dared express a hundred years ago. Here, even Orestes isn’t “some proto Wotan hero, but traumatised”.

“If only I could erase the word ‘revival’ from the operatic lexicon !” says Edwards. “The word Weideraufnahme, a “new take”, is more appropriate. Five years have passed, and if anything, the interpretation takes on extra significance now that all that’s safe and certain seems to be crumbling around us. Edwards credits his cast, who have melded well. The family in the plot may be dysfunctional, but the singers work together like a community. “It’s much more ensemble. Everyone’s on stage at the end, the whole piece is cyclical. Toscaninni said there is no such thing as small parts, only small artists and there are no small artists in this production. Everyone is going on a journey, all their roles figure”.

This Elektra is on at the Royal Opera House, London on November 8th, 12th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 24th. Click here for details.

Charles Edwards has extensive directing and design experience throughout Europe. In the United States he has designed productions for Dallas, Houston and Chicago.

Anne Ozorio

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