Mercurial Emotional Shifts in Nelsons’ Relentless Elektra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Elektra: Soloists and Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Opera / Andris Nelsons. (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 23.9.2013. (JPr)

ELEKTRA by Richard Strauss; Royal Opera House,; Covent Garden; Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;
Elektra © Clive Barda

Elektra:  Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra: Michaela Schuster
Orest:  Iain Paterson
Ägisth:   John Daszak
First Maid:   Anna Burford
Second Maid: Catherine Carby
Third Maid:  Elizabeth Sikora
Fourth Maid:  Elizabeth Woollett
Fifth Maid:   Jennifer Check
Overseer:  Elaine McKrill
Young Servant: Doug Jones

Director, Set, Lighting designs: Charles Edwards
Costume designs:     Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Movement Director:   Leah Hausman

The ‘Electra complex’ is the psychoanalytic metaphor for daughter–mother psychosexual conflict and is named after the Fifth-century BC Greek mythological character (as recounted by Sophocles and Euripides) who plotted, with the aid of her brother Orest, to kill their mother, Klytämnestra, and Ägisth, their stepfather, because she murdered their father, Agamemnon. Sigmund Freud called a girl’s sexual competition with her mother for her father, the feminine Oedipus attitude and the negative Oedipus complex. The latter term was something he first used in 1910, coincidentally the year after Elektra’s first performances. However it was his collaborator Carl Jung who actually coined the term ‘Electra complex’ just a few years later, though this was famously rejected by Freud as being psychoanalytically inaccurate: ‘that what we have said about the Oedipus complex applies with complete strictness to the male child only, and that we are right in rejecting the term “Electra complex”, which seeks to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes’.

Anyway there is a lot about this in essays in the programme for the second revival of Charles Edwards’s 2003 acclaimed staging of Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Despite the opera’s origins in ancient Greek mythology, it is a ‘modernist opera’ and also an expressionist one. Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s adaptation keeps Elektra on stage all the time after her first appearance – and as here more often than not in the spotlight. It explores her character by revealing her emotions and psychology motivations as she meets – mostly one at a time – all the other characters, Klytämnestra, Orest, Ägisth, as well as, her sister, Chrysothemis. For me none of them have enough time on stage for any real character development and are secondary to Elektra’s cries for vengeance and its blood-soaked aftermath, as revealed (or revelled-in?) in Charles Edwards’ revenge-fantasy production.

Elektra probably doesn’t need that much direction as the setting never changes;  originally it is the courtyard of the palace where Agamemnon once ruled and where now his wife now reigns. For part of Edwards’ set he gives us evidence of the archaeological excavation of that ancient Greek palace and Elektra constantly fondles the head from a large statue of her father. Towards the back of the stage there is a wall of opaque Perspex panels and a revolving door from a hotel of the time of Elektra’s 1910 première which at the end is left isolated in the midst of all the bloodied corpses. Charles Edwards was also responsible for the lighting, and the shadow of that statue of Agamemnon looms large over the proceedings from time to time. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are typical of fin-de-siècle Vienna.

As the opera opens, Elektra’s father has already be slain with an axe that is a potent physical and musical motif during the ensuing 100 minutes and we hear a four-note theme to which Elektra will later sing his name. Elektra is mourning her father, and she has suffered abuse by both her mother and Klytämnestra’s lover, Ägisth. Elektra is initially cowed and, as described in the libretto’s stage direction runs back into the palace ‘like an animal to its lair’. Her sister Chrysothemis wanders around like a victim of this dysfunctional family and longs to be somewhere else and have a happier life. Their brother, Orest, has escaped into exile only later to return and become the first male commentator on the proceedings after about an hour. The action, such as it is, begins with five maids washing Agamemnon’s blood from the mosaic floor and nailing down hardboard to cover it up. They are kept to their task by the whip of a cruel Overseer and together the maids discuss Elektra’s madness; she soon enters, we can see for ourselves.

In a long monologue (‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein’), she remembers Agamemnon and reveals how she is determined to avenge him and how with her sister and brother the deed will be done, and then she will dance ‘a royal dance of victory’ at her father’s grave. It is almost a reimagining of Strauss’s earlier Salome and after much to-ing and fro-ing from the subsidiary characters, Chrysothemis comes out of the palace stating that the returned Orest is inside and that he has killed both Klytämnestra and Ägisth, with a massacre having begun as his followers have also killed those who supported them. Chrysothemis goes into the palace to be with her brother, while Elektra is ecstatic and begins to dance. The fact that she has achieved what she wanted overwhelms her and at climax of her dance, she falls down dead. The last we hear is Chrysothemis calling for her brother, Orest, which mirrors Elektra’s earlier cries for Agamemnon. Perhaps Strauss is hinting that the incest will continue. What else he wants us to experience is a little obscure – apart perhaps from ‘Beware the angry woman’. This may – or may not – have something to do with Strauss’s own apparent ‘Mommie Dearest’ issues!

This was my fourth Elektra and 25 years on from my first at Covent Garden in 1988. To anyone reading my reviews I can come over as something of an ‘old fogey’ but I could not understand the audience going berserk for Christine Goerke’s Elektra. I have previously heard both Gwyneth Jones and Eva Marton in the role and they were much more vocally abandoned than Goerke was. The American soprano seemed to be pacing herself and while she must be admired for tackling this fiendishly difficult part I suspect there are other roles she is more temperamentally suited for. I wanted the rafters to rattle with her top notes and she never achieved that, however well she otherwise sang. She was clearly outsung by Adrianne Pieczonka’s bright, nuanced, pitch-perfect, Chrysothemis. Surprisingly this was the first time since 2002 that the Canadian soprano has sung at Covent Garden. She is, of course, the more human, though still vulnerable, sister and has all the feminine emotions Elektra does not allow herself. Pieczonka acted her character’s hopes and fears to perfection.

I wondered whether the hatchet-wielding murderous queen Klytämnestra with her boils and festering sores could be even more monstrous and menacing than shown here, there was a greater sense of pathos to Michaela Schuster’s understated portrayal and warm-toned singing than this character probably deserves. I also wondered whether Iain Paterson’s Orest should not sound darker, but he was otherwise exemplary and his compassion for his sister’s plight was palpable, his willingness to join her in avenging her father’s murder totally believable. I look forward to hearing this singer’s Dutchman as this is how he sang on his entrance into the story. John Daszak’s Ägisth isn’t given much to work with by Strauss but he staggers across stage convincingly as a drunken, sexually-deviant, figure and sings this high-lying part with unaccustomed ease. The rest of the small parts were generally well-taken by experienced singers, although I thought the maids  initially a rather squally quintet; Elaine McKrill’s whip-cracking Overseer seemed to have more of the genuine vocal attack needed for Strauss than most of them.

Elektra demands a huge orchestra and the percussion spilled over into the stalls circle: it was a wonderful evening for them – and propelled forward by Andris Nelsons’ flailing baton and sinuous hand gestures – they gave an impassioned, raw account of the score. The dramatic shape of what is, in fact, a number of linked scenes was perfectly accompanied by the mercurial emotional shifts of the music encompassing almost insane rage, as well as, nostalgia and pleading. At times it was all a bit too loud and overwhelmed the singers – it was as if Nelsons forgot he was no longer at Bayreuth (where he conducts Lohengrin so wonderfully) but has the benefit of the famous cowl to cover the sound.

Charles Edwards’s set has lots of pages of something scattered around the floor for me they might be the score of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries because clearly – for those with ears to hear – if this had not been composed Elektra would sound entirely different from how it does. It is as though those pages had been put back together haphazardly with a few random ones from a couple of Viennese waltzes. We hear the Ride time and again but you read nothing of that in the programme;  in fact, Christopher Wintle in his essay ‘Music and Psychology’ wants us to think of Don Giovanni for some reason. It remains a raucous score – even more so than I remember it under Solti in 1990 – and is rather relentless, almost ill-mannered, though Strauss was never, of course, one for understatement!

Jim Pritchard