An epic and destructive blood-soaked tour-de-force, Strauss’ Elektra is no stranger to the Royal Opera House, already seeing revivals in 2003 and 2008. Beginning its journey as Sophocles’s Greek tragedy it was then adapted into a play by Austrian poet Hugo Von Hofmannsthal in 1903 before he and Strauss collaborated soon after, transforming it into an opera in 1909, when it debuted in Dresden to mostly positive reviews. Arriving in London the year after, much of the hype and excitement surrounding it began long before its opening night. People were intrigued and frightened by the apparent shocking nature of the work and ticket sales were sky high.
The story takes place in one act, comprising of seven scenes; a pitiful and emotional dance of violence and death. The story has already started as the curtain is raised with King Agememnon having being murdered by his wife Klytamnestra and her consort Agisth. His daughter Elektra has since become a prisoner in her own home and vows to avenge her father’s death, sacrificing her own sanity in the process.
The Royal Opera House’s current production of Elektra boasts the same set design as its predecessors; a sloping, chaotic, almost industrial nightmare with greys and blacks running through. There’s a distinct lack of ‘togetherness’ here as the set is presented broken – smashed windows, books thrown about and gaping holes in the floor, representing what is an undoubtedly ferociously torn-apart woman in Christine Goerke’s Elektra. A Viennese-style revolving door separates what is initially visible to the audience, later to be spattered with blood, and a screen presents ghostly shadows and the screaming palace inhabitants, which, on opening, presents blinding reds and flaming debris. Charles Edwards’s designs are unforgiving and marvellous, presenting the perfect tones for such a powerful piece.
Brigitte Reifenstuel’s costume designs are a smattering of colour against the neutral backdrops, bringing to life a classical antiquity present at Elektra’s debut at the turn of the twentieth century. The distinction between Klytamnestra’s richly vibrant dress and Elektra’s dowdy one speaks a thousand words and as the mother’s aesthetics are stripped away, we see how powerful Reifenstuel’s presence is.
A piece heavily laden with female presence, the voices here are just breathtaking. Goerke’s deep, powerful tones are immensely captivating, soaring over the absolutely outstanding orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons, from the moment she bites back at her maids. She plays the part with an insane and calculating eye; all hope is lost.
Michaela Schuster’s Klytamenstra is fearful, and so she should be. Her gleeful approach to both her husband and son’s death is frightening and once stripped of her bravado is even more so. She is a woman most comfortable with the finer things in life and once this has gone, it is apparent just how terrible a broken woman can be.
Adrianne Pieczonka as the polar opposite sister Chrysothemis offers a gentler voice and manner as she disagrees with Elektra’s torturous need for revenge. She is looking to the future in the hopes of starting a family, perhaps to replace the one she is so rapidly losing. Her duet with Goerke is spine-tingling.
Though I was perhaps expecting something a little bit grittier, Elektra is a magnificent piece and the final curtain was met by thunderous applause, almost leaving Goerke in tears.
Elektra is playing at the Royal Opera House until 12 October. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL