When Charles Edwards' 2003 production of Elektra opened at the Royal Opera House, it was to mixed reviews, and it is the director's vision that remains the most problematic element in its latest outing, whose musical standards are of the highest quality.
This revival's principal asset comes in the fearsomely well sung and acted Elektra of Susan Bullock and it was a proud moment to see a British singer triumph so unequivocally in a title role at Covent Garden.
Another is Sir Mark Elder in the pit, giving an account of the score that seemed to capture all its elemental power whilst savouring the moments of beauty. The evening under Elder's baton was one long crescendo, as it should be, and played host to some of the best playing to have been heard from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House for a while.
However, Edwards' production, only in its first revival, already seems tired. If not exactly bereft of ideas, it lacks an overarching concept to bring it all together into something with any meaning. Split vertically, the set seems designed to show the story's continued relevance and demonstrate how the rot has persisted throughout the centuries: to the left is a crumbling Greek edifice, in front of it is a large desk, Agamemnon's one might assume; to the right of it a bleak wall of dull glass through which characters pass by means of a revolving door.
One might reasonably imagine that these more modern trappings, which are historically unspecific, are designed to emphasise the idea of Hofmannsthal having incorporated fin-de-siècle Freudian psychology into his reworking of Sophocles; an idea often over-stated, as Tim Ashley and David Nice remind us in their programme essays. This thesis, however, is quickly undone by the muddled decisions regarding costumes.
Like David McVicar's Salome, a generalised interwar fashion is adopted by Klytämnestra and her entourage, something that, cut free from that era's politics, seems worringly to have gained currency as an easy shorthand for decadence. Aegisth appears in dinner jacket, though, and Orest is dressed à la Indiana Jones and makes a rather unconvincing entrance through a gap in the Greek wall, down a ladder. Elektra and her maids – now arbitrarily and confusingly designated 'working women' in Edwards' own synopsis – are dressed, more or less, as cleaners. The temporal uncertainty of the production also means that Elektra starts by clutching a black and white photo of her father before, in her monologue, being forced to dance with the bulky head and shoulders of a Greek sculpture of him.
While on the one hand Edwards adds to our confusion, on the other he is too keen deliberately to underline the obvious. As Elektra sings of Orest's disappearance, she produces an old poster – a picture of a boy with 'Vermisst!' printed underneath – and afixes it to the back wall; mentions of Agamemnon are often accompanied by a large shadow projected onto the set; as one of the maids sings, quoting someone else's metaphor, of 'sweeping the shame', she is made dutifully to sweep rubbish across the stage. Worst, perhaps, is the decision to lift the main wall for the final scene to display the carnage described in the libretto, a picture surely best conjured up by the imagination.
However, the production could do little to detract from the musical attributes of the performance, which showed the Royal Opera at its very best. You would have to go a long way to hear a better sung or paced performance of Strauss's treacherous score. Nor can I think of anyone who would currently be able to tackle the title role with such assurance as Susan Bullock.
Having sung Elektra over fifty times already all over the world, she finally brings her interpretation to London and while there are all the advantages one would expect from someone so experienced in the role, her voice still sounds remarkably fresh and is thankfully unimpeded by the problems of manoeuvrability and intonation some of today's dramatic sopranos suffer from. It is not a voice necessarily to pin a listener to the back of his seat, or to send shivers down the spine – the top can lose focus and the middle of the voice is not always ideally seductive - but it is used with unusual intelligence and sensitivity. She also acts the role with unflinching commitment and the continuous, fascinating commentary provided by her facial expressions when she's not singing, although intensely subjective, goes some way to make up for Hofmannsthal's decision to do away with the Greek chorus.
As her siblings, Anne Schwanewilms and Johan Reuter are no less outstanding. Schanewilms' radiant voice and elegantly feminine stage persona are ideally suited to Chrysothemis, who is here an embodiment of straightforward maternal instinct and gentleness. There were times when the voice itself lost its legato line and a couple of moments of fractionally insecure intonation, but as a foil to Elektra's asexualised obsessiveness, she could hardly be bettered. Reuter's growing reputation is further advanced by this Orest, sung in a seductive but rock-solid bass-baritone and acted with straight-forward integrity.
Jane Henschel's Klytämnetra might prove more controversial. Arriving as something of a battle-axe she removes her wig to reveal thinning white hair and her gloves to expose hands and fore-arms, the skin pink and pestilent. Her trainbearer (Louise Armit) is now a prim nurse, ready to provide a tranquilising injection or dab of ointment at a moment's notice. Left alone with her daughter, she shivers and twitches disconcertingly and cuts a pathetic and horrific figure, weaker perhaps than one is used to. Vocally, Henschel was at her usual authoritative best, though, and gave a committed performance, albeit one of rather broadly drawn caricature. Frank van Aken's Aegisth headed a fine selection of singers in supporting roles. Eri Nakamura was impressive as the Fifth Maid and former Young Artist Alfie Boe even cropped up as the Young Servant.
Marshalling the vast forces of Strauss's orchestra – including a handful of percussionists squeezed into the stalls circle – Mark Elder showed once again what an instinctive Straussian he is. Right from the opening statement – the four-bar long overture, as Christopher Wintle describes it in his programme essay – this was clearly going to be a thrilling ride through the opera. Elder was particularly successful, though, in controlling his players so that Strauss's telling instrumental details were audible and, more importantly, the text, delivered with impressive clarity by the cast. There were a couple of moments when the tension slackened, but under Elder's tight control the work came across as it should: as one of the most concentrated and tautly structured of all operatic scores.
In short, although Edwards' production is a disappointment, this is a musically outstanding Elektra. With Bullock and Elder the Royal Opera have put their faith in two of the country's greatest operatic ambassadors and the results are not to be missed.
By Hugo Shirley
Read our interview with Susan Bullock about tackling Elektra at Covent Garden here...
Read our interview with Sir Mark Elder on conducting Ariadne auf Naxos and Elektra here...
Elektra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden runs until 24 November