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Michaela Schuster as Klytamnestra and Christine Goerke as Elektra [Photo © ROH / Clive Barda]
29 Sep 2013

Elektra, Royal Opera

Charles Edwards’s production of Elektra, first seen in 2003,

Elektra, Royal Opera

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Michaela Schuster as Klytamnestra and Christine Goerke as Elektra

Photos © ROH / Clive Barda


and revived in 2008 , now returns to Covent Garden under the baton of Andris Nelsons. There remains much to admire in the staging, though I found myself entertaining a little more in the way of doubt than I had on previous occasions. My impression was that it had become gorier, and it may well have done, though by the same token, it may have been that I was now more attentive to what it had in common with, rather than what distinguished it from, David McVicar’s Royal Opera Salome. (McVicar was present in the audience.) Violence had always been present, not least in the shocking torture of the Fifth Maid, her twitching and indeed at one point revivified corpse, long present on stage to remind us, lest we forget. Playing with time, the ‘present’ of Strauss and Hofmannsthal meshed with ancient Mycenae, or rather with an idea thereof, remains a strength. A sense of the archaeological is offered by Agamemnon’s bust, and the shadow it casts: at one point as towering as the motif associated with the murdered king. Perhaps that sense might have been stronger; there are moments when the relationship seems unclear and a stronger impression of recreating a past that never was might assist. But it is quite possible that that is the point; we are after all in the world of dreams, of psychoanalysis. A splendid touch in that respect is Elektra’s desk. One might read its role in various ways; I could not help but think of a more or less explicit consultation, not only when Klytämnestra comes to her in need of interpretation, but also in the scene with Ägisth. Piercing the darkness with the fierce ray of her desk lamp heightens that impression, Elektra’s lighting his way viewed from a new standpoint, both literally and more figuratively. A particularly troubling sense of familial sickness — I realise that in this opera, that is something of an understatement — is offered by the relationship of Elektra and Orest. It appears that there is something rather more than sibling affection between them, though that is not laboured. It certainly seems confused, as it would be: fleetingly maternal, fleetingly paternal, at one point apparently sexual. Or maybe it is that Edwards’s staging allows the audience the space to offer its own interpretation; whatever the ‘intention’, the result is provocative in the best sense. My present taste may lie more with relative abstraction; that, however, is no reason to dismiss other approaches.

130920_0450.gifAdrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis

‘Ob ich nicht höre? ob ich die Musik nicht höre?’ Elektra asks, commencing the last and most delirious of her monologues: ‘Do I not hear it? Do I not hear the music?’ She maintains that it comes from inside her, though we, in a sense, know that at best to be a partial truth; Strauss’s orchestra has shown itself true to Wagner’s Opera and Drama — for Strauss, the ‘book of all books’ on opera — conception of the orchestra as the modern Attic chorus. Far too often, however, we find ourselves lamenting the tone-deafness of stage directors, wishing to ask them, in the nicest possible way, or perhaps not, whether they do not hear it, do they not hear the music? Therein perhaps lies the greatest strength of Edwards’s staging, aided by Leah Hausman’s movement, in that it clearly hears Strauss’s music. It is not enslaved, but rather liberated by it. There are instances where movement is clearly tied to the score, others when it is more a case of heightening of tension on stage relating to the orchestra as much as to the libretto. Lighting — Edwards’s own — is as attentive and revealing as movement.

And what music, it is, of course, in what must surely be Strauss’s greatest opera. (It may not be our favourite, but that is a different matter.) Nelsons was often impressive, at his best offering an object lesson in transition: Wagner’s ‘most subtle art’, as it should be in Strauss too. The recognition scene was but one exemplary instance. Not only was dramatic process tightly and meaningfully controlled, with an aptly unsettling sense of release that was not at all release when Elektra’s slinky ‘Orest! Orest! Es rührt sich niemand’ stole upon us; Strauss’s phantasmagorical cauldron of orchestral colour here and in many other cases had been stirred so as to provide just the right sense of dream-world and nausea for us to receive what was unfolding. Indeed, there were numerous instances in which I heard the score sound closer to the Strauss of earlier tone poems than I can recall; it is doubtless no coincidence that Nelsons has been exploring that orchestral repertoire in some depth of late. Other transitions were handled with less security; the second scene, for instance, seemed to follow on abruptly from the first, indeed from a prolonged caesura rather than musico-dramatic inevitability. There may well, however, be good reason to believe that the flow will become still more impressive as the run of performances continues. Likewise, if Nelsons’s ear for colour seemed somewhat to desert him at the very close, that may well be rectified, and may have been more a matter of orchestral exhaustion than anything else. The orchestra itself was on good rather than great form, but it was only when one made comparisons, as inevitable as they are odious, with one’s aural memory — always a dangerous, deceptive game — thinking, for instance, of Karl Böhm’s magnificent Staatskapelle Dresden, or of Daniele Gatti’s astounding Salzburg Festival account , the Vienna Philharmonic at the very top of its form, that discrepancy became apparent.

Christine Goerke’s assumption of the title role may be accounted a resounding triumph. There was dramatic commitment, to be sure, but also vocal security and clarity that are far from a foregone conclusion in this treacherous role. If there were moments of strain, I either did not notice, or have forgotten them; this was very much a sung rather than screamed Elektra. Adrienne Pieczonka gave the finest performance I have heard from her as Chrysothemis, her voice more focused and with considerably greater bloom than I recall from, for instance, her Salzburg Marschallin. (Perhaps this role is a better fit vocally for her, or maybe her time has more fully come.) Michaela Schuster threw herself wholeheartedly into a splendidly malevolent portrayal of Klytämnestra, with John Daszak as her husband finely managing the tricky balancing act between portrayal of a weak, contemptible character and convincing assumption of the role. Iain Paterson offered a typically musicianly, quietly chilling Orest. Smaller parts were all well taken, the individual lines and timbres of the five maids impressively apparent.

At the end, then, I felt duly bludgeoned, as that least affirmative of C major chords dealt the final blow. There is no redemption: a concept that Strauss never understood, as witnessed by his bemusement over Mahler’s desire for that most Wagnerian of goals. Here, however, as is not always the case with the composer, thoroughgoing, post-Nietzschean materialism and dramatic truth go hand in hand. Adorno’s attack upon Strauss’s concluding music seemed to me more wrongheaded than ever: testament, surely, to a staging and performance worthy of Elektra.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

First Maid: Anna Burford; Second Maid: Catherine Carby; Third Maid: Elizabeth Sikora; Fourth Maid: Elizabeth Woollett; Fifth Maid: Jennifer Check; Overseer: Elaine McKrill; Elektra: Christine Goerke; Chrysothemis: Adrienne Pieczonka; Klytämnestra: Michaela Schuster; Confidante: Louise Armit; Trainbearer: Marianne Cotterill; Young Servant: Doug Jones; Old Servant: Jeremy White; Orest: Iain Paterson; Orest’s Companion: John Cunningham; Ägisth: John Daszak. Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)/Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Andris Nelsons. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 23 September 2013

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