Elektra at Royal Opera House

Elektra is a kind of Holy St¸ck”, 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 Gl¸ckes”, 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

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

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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