Elektra – Tragedy in one act to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal [sung in German with English surtitles]
First Maid – Frances McCafferty
Second Maid – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Third Maid – Kathleen Wilkinson
Fourth Maid – Elizabeth Woollett
Fifth Maid – Eri Nakamura
Overseer – Miriam Murphy
Elektra – Susan Bullock
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Jane Henschel
Confidante – Louise Armit
Trainbearer – Dervla Ramsay
Young Servant – Alfie Boe
Old Servant – Jeremy White
Orest – Johan Reuter
Orest’s companion – Vuyani Mlinde
Ägisth – Frank van Aken
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Mark Elder
Charles Edwards – Director, Set design & Lighting
Brigitte Reiffenstuel – Costume designer
Leah Hausman – Movement director
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 8 November, 2008
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
The enthusiastic and roaring reaction of the audience at the end of this first-night performance of this revival of Charles Edwards’s production of “Elektra” indicated that this run looks likely to be remembered for some years to come. With casting that could hardly be bettered and a magisterial account of the score by the players of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Sir Mark Elder matched by a staging that has had some of its over-theatrical effects re-thought or eradicated. Thus this emotionally exhausting opera gripped from the start; the relentless journey to those astonishingly dissonant-sounding C major chords never sagging for a minute.
Elder managed to contain the orchestral tumult until the moments where it mattered and the score was given an astonishing dynamic range. Strauss’s more Impressionistic writing such as those nervously slithery strings punctuated by little bursts of percussion thataccompany Klytämnestra’s account of her nocturnal anxieties and dreams, or the surging passages that depict Chrysothemis’s emotionally labile state were all painted in with extraordinary care for detail and orchestral clarity. Some of the tempos were very measured, in particular the more romantic passages such as the Elektra-Orest reconciliation, and yet they never lost tension. Even Elektra’s final dance was not brutally and noisily triumphal but instead strangely unsettling. Elder’s careful control of dynamics also meant that his singers were not required to resort to high-decibel utterance but instead able to sing with point and subtlety, and thus to match text to music. And how this pays dividends when the libretto is one like Hofmannstahl’s!
Each major character is beset by their own individual dilemmas that have resulted from the murder of Agamemnon, and on this particular day all reveal their inner thoughts, hopes and anxieties. Elektra, internally fixated by her anticipation of Orest’s return to avenge his father’s murder finally reveals her visions totaunt her mother. Klytämnestra’s weariness with her current existence and the contradictory advice of her confidantes and advisors gets the better of her and she confides these concerns and her innermost fears to her daughter. Chrysothemis vents her frustration at her predicament and her desire to live a normal life and be blessed with children and Orest’s nervousness at his vengeful task slips from his tongue as he recognises his sister. Charles Edwards’s intelligent production makes it clear that these are not repeated vocalised mantras but emotional releases resulting from extreme tension that has built up over considerable periods of time that have all collided on a single day. It’s powerful stuff, made more so by the fact that so much of this is sung so quietly and demands attention of the audience.
Susan Bullock’s Elektra was a stunning achievement. There is no doubting that she has all the reserves of power for the big dramatic moments that are a pre-requisite of the role. However, it is hard to recall a performance of the tile role delivered with such beauty of tone. The irony of some her utterances to Jane Henschel’s strangely sympathetic Klytämnestra were absolutely chilling, and the floods of generously warm tone lavished on the Orest-Elektra encounter were emotionally charged. Johan Reuter’s Orest was equally impressive in this regard and both he and Bullock managed to make the protracted recognition scene both inevitable and unbearably poignant as they realise the effects of time and tension on one another and that each is scarred irreparably. At the same time Reuter managed to sound both noble and implacable and there was an unsettling element of steeliness underpinning his always-rounded tone.
Jane Henschel was a marvellously vivid and addled queen – singing her difficult music as if it was the most tuneful imaginable, and keeping the audience hanging on every word. The moment when she removed her black wig to reveal the decrepit white-haired woman underneath was tellingly done, and even the grotesque response to the news that Orest has been killed seemed apposite to her character’s extreme emotions. Good death-screams, too.
Anne Schwanewilms was returning to the part of Chrysothemis and her silvery penetrating tone still suits the nervousness and desperation of Elektra’s younger sister well. She too has the requisite power on high when it is needed, although perhaps these moments are a little more effortful in production than they once were. As with all the principals her diction was exemplary and there was much nuance lavished on passages and phrases of text that so often pass unnoticed. She’s a vivid actress with amazingly expressive eyes, and the final image of her crouching terrified in the space of the revolving door of the palace of Mycaenae as it becomes a fiery bloodbath is a potent one.
The smaller roles were also well cast. Frank van Aken’s Ägisth was refreshingly direct and thankfully not camped up, and the maids and overseer were all tremendous. Charles Edwards’s designs and lighting are atmospheric and imposing. It was particularly pleasing that the somewhat hammy dispatch of Klytämnestra that had disfigured the initial production has been eliminated. There remain moments where the retention of some of the minor characters on the stage beyond their main contribution to the drama almost overstay their welcome (particularly the fifth maid who seems to overhear the disguised Orest’s revelation of his true identity), but these were not as extreme or distracting as before. Perhaps this was because overall this was a revival that was musically stronger and dramatically more intense than the original. It is exhausting and exhilarating and packs a mighty punch. Highly recommended if you feel up to it!
- Further performances on November 12, 15, 18, 21 & 24 at 7.30 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera
- Interview with Jane Henschel