Strauss: Elektra

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 30th September 2013 4 stars

ElektraAfter a low-octane Turandot (Lise Lindstrom’s titular performance aside) to open the season, it was nice to return to Covent Garden and find that the emotional temperature considerably raised. Richard Strauss’s first collaboration with his star librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl remains one of the most searing operatic works of the 20th century, and on a good night – which this was – can still (if you’ll pardon the pun) electrify an audience 100 years on.

Charles Edwards’s 2003 production was back for its second revival, and while it doesn’t do anything terribly surprising is still an effective staging. Edwards is a veritable one-man-band, and the fact that he directed, lit and designed the piece gives it a visual and dramatic coherence; he had tinkered with it a bit, but the essentials remained the same. Mixing up the blood-stained rubble and fragments of a fallen classical world with the (equally distressed looking) signifiers of early-20th century Europe creates a suitably timeless setting for a piece that, by 1910, could, of necessity, only approach Greek myth through the lens of the burgeoning psychology of Sigmund Freud. Whether or not we’re meant to extend the extreme dysfunction of this particular family to society at large, the double time-frame resonates nicely: the attempts of the five maids to screw plywood flooring over the blood-drenched mosaics beneath suggests that ancient passions are not so easily covered over.

American Soprano Christine Goerke’s Covent Garden debut in the title role was eagerly anticipated by those who’d read reviews of her Elektra in the US and Europe. She didn’t disappoint, giving an extremely assured performance in this most arduous of parts, the big and mostly luxuriant voice riding Strauss’s vast orchestra without visible or audible effort (and no screaming). Cutting an imposing figure, wild-eyed and wrapped in a filthy greatcoat, she was every inch the embittered, avenging daughter; less sympathetic, perhaps, than Susan Bullock in the production’s last outing in 2008, but compellingly, scarily focused; she brought the house down at the final curtain.

Fortunately, she was surrounded by a cast working largely at the same level. Adrienne Pieczonka’s powerfully and passionately sung Chrysothemis made Elektra’s little sister into a far more formidable figure than the shrinking violet she often seems; when Elektra sang “Wie stark du bist”, you quite believed her.

Iain Paterson – always a fine actor as well as a singer – turned in a slightly brutish Orest who made a good match for Goerke. The recognition scene was both tender and chilling; I don’t remember the reunited siblings kissing quite so enthusiastically last time around – echoes of Siegmund and Sieglinde – but it suggested that Elektra’s obsessive bloodlust had found its mirror image.

Michaela Schuster as Klytemnestra was another of the evening’s real high spots; weaving a middle way between the usual crazed old mother-from-hell routine and Waltraud Meier’s unforgettably sympathetic, Swanson-like turn in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2010 Salzburg production. Schuster’s crystal-clear and pointed German allowed her to paint the text with the precision and intensity of a lieder singer, squeezing every last neurotic twist and turn out of her confrontation with her daughter.

The real stars of the evening, though, were Andris Nelsons and the Royal Opera Orchestra . Nelsons seemed to coax details out of Strauss’s astonishingly dense score that I don’t recall ever hearing before. One can ‘do’ Elektra in terms of sheer, bludgeoning force, pumping up the volume and simply blasting the audience out of their seats (Gergiev’s loud but uninvolving 2010 reading at the Barbican springs to mind). Such a visceral approach can work well enough, but Nelsons took a different approach – more lyrical, more measured and more textured. This was an Elektra of scurrying woodwind figures, whip-crack percussion and luscious string tone, and one in which every orchestral voice was as distinctly audible and individually characterised as those in one of the composer’s bravura workouts like Til Eulenspeigel. Perhaps there was a slight trade-off at times in terms of sheer visceral impact, but this was such a decadently seductive soundworld that one simply wanted to close one’s eyes and jump right in.

By David Sutton

Photos: Royal Opera House