Sunday, 9 November 2008

Elektra, Royal Opera, 8 November 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Elektra – Susan Bullock
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytemnestra – Jane Henschel
Orest – Johan Reuter
First Maid – Frances McCafferty
Second Maid – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Third Maid – Kathleen Wilkinson
Fourth Maid – Elizabeth Woolett
Fifth Maid – Eri Nakamura
Overseer – Miriam Murphy
Young Servant – Alfie Boe
Confidante – Louise Armit
Trainbearer – Dervla Ramsy
Orest’s tutor – Vuyani Mlinde
Aegisth – Frank von Aken
Old servant – Jeremy White

Charles Edwards (director, set designer, and lighting)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Leah Hausman (choreography)

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renata Balsadonna)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

This is my third Elektra within a year, having also seen productions in Berlin and in Munich. To think that I once worried about the effect that too much Mahler might have upon me! As with Mahler, albeit unnervingly without the catharsis, deepening knowledge of the work has served only to heighten my fascination and admiration. The Royal Opera’s revisiting of Charles Edwards’s production – Edwards rightly dislikes the term ‘revival’, although in some cases, it can sadly be all too appropriate – has much to commend it, as did the two German performances.

Edwards’s sets give an excellent impression of the corruption and depravity of Mycenae. It is not excessive, which must be a temptation, and is therefore all the more powerful. Antiquity and the early twentieth century – a little after the time of composition – are both suggested without being fetishised. Whatever Elektra is ‘about’, it is certainly not about historical ‘accuracy’; indeed, given how closely Hofmannsthal follows Sophocles, it is remarkable how little of the latter’s politics remain. And although the activity of archaeology is perhaps suggested by the bust of Agamemnon – chillingly kissed by Elektra – and by signs of digging, there is no dry archaeological positivism to the scene, which stands dialectically related to the dancing on a volcano of the 1920s. Had they not learned from the War (whether Trojan or Great)? Of course not. Violence is endemic though not unduly exaggerated. (David McVicar could have learned a great deal from this before his sensationalist Salome, as he could have done from Edwards’s intelligent rather than arbitrary suggestions of the interwar years.) The treatment of the Fifth Maid – a fine portrayal from Eri Nakamura, a Jette Parker Young Artist – by the other maids and Miriam Murphy’s splendidly horrifying Overseer really sets the scene for what is to come. The degrading – fatal? – punishment that follows horrifies still more. What helps to make this so powerful is the partial restoration of the political that Edwards so successfully achieves. He reminds us throughout that this is not simply a madhouse but the palace of Mycenae. We see from time to time other members of the household and the effect that the degeneration of the ruling house has upon the ruled, most crucially of all in the final bloodbath, in which the palace wall is lifted to reveal the carnage that has been unleashed, the latest – and, we must hope, the last – instalment of Thyestes’s curse upon the house of Atreus. This is not of course the only way to present Elektra but it is an interesting and valid route to take.

Sir Mark Elder’s reading stood distant from the blood-and-gore, priapism-a-minute approach of Sir Georg Solti. We heard a great deal of detail in the score, including some delectable woodwind lines, impeccably played by an orchestra on top form. The baleful Wagnerian brass sounded, rightly, as if it had originated in Fafner’s lair. Dance rhythms surfaced throughout, reminding us that Elektra is not only the high watermark of Strauss’s expressionism but also paves the way for Der Rosenkavalier (which is, in turn, a far nastier opera than nostalgics could ever understand.) There were times, however, when I thought that a little more menace, violence even, would not have gone amiss. One can tend towards the analytical without the occasional loss to the dramatic that we heard here. In Strauss, Christoph von Dohnányi is an example in this and so many respects, although Semyon Bychkov also impressed during the production’s initial run. In a generally well-paced account, the crucial Recognition Scene dragged somewhat, lessening the dramatic release upon the realisation of Orest and Elektra that they have finally been reunited. That said, it was a treat to hear the final scene develop rather than scream throughout. Even necrophiliac orgies of destruction need to gather pace. Moreover, the musical echoes here of the final scene of Tristan can rarely have registered so clearly.

The cast was impressive, not least in the smaller roles, all of which were well characterised, as well as well directed. Johan Reuter started somewhat anonymously as Orest – although, I suppose, he is anonymous to Elektra at this point – but his portrayal acquired greater strength. Frank von Aken was no Siegfried Jerusalem, to whose cameo we were treated last time; by the same token, he was no mere caricature in the role of Aegisth and he acted well, disturbingly well. Jane Henschel not only spitted malevolence and terrifying, jubilant hysteria, the latter upon the news of Orest’s death. She also imparted a sense of vulnerability, of the humanity that must at one time have existed in Klytämnestra. This made the sheer evil displayed at her last both shocking and credible. Anne Schwanewilms made a sympathetic Chrysothemis, as she had previously. One could forgive the occasional occlusion of the words – inevitable to some extent – given her beauty of tone and security of line. And Susan Bullock was a fine Elektra. She fully inhabited the role musically and dramatically, her fine diction and intonation permitting a more sophisticated portrayal than the screaming harpy of caricature. Desperation and damage, resilience and revenge: one understood how all of these feelings and more arose from the murder of her father, and beyond that from the terrible feud between the two sons of Pelops. In this, as in so much else, Bullock’s Elektra and Edwards’s Elektra were at one: at the service of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, yet nevertheless, and indeed consequently, engaged in imaginative recreation.

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