Elektra, Royal Opera

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 Klyt‰mnestra comes to her in
need of interpretation, but also in the scene with ƒgisth. 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 hˆre? ob ich die Musik nicht hˆre?’ 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
r¸hrt 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 Bˆhm’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
Klyt‰mnestra, 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; Klyt‰mnestra: Michaela Schuster; Confidante: Louise Armit;
Trainbearer: Marianne Cotterill; Young Servant: Doug Jones; Old Servant: Jeremy
White; Orest: Iain Paterson; Orest’s Companion: John Cunningham; ƒgisth:
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

image_description=Michaela Schuster as Klytamnestra and Christine Goerke as Elektra [Photo © ROH / Clive Barda]
product_title=Elektra, Royal Opera
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Michaela Schuster as Klytamnestra and Christine Goerke as Elektra

Photos © ROH / Clive Barda