Picture Credit: Tristram Kenton

High art or high camp?

Elektra, Royal Opera House

Artillery Row On Opera

Is Richard Strauss’s determined shocker, first performed in 1909, high art or high camp? Or could it be both? It’s a question that hangs over pretty much everything the man wrote, but (to judge by the pseudy guff written about this latest production at Covent Garden, in the programme and reviews) it is frightfully bad taste to ask it. This is very silly: one of the most fruitful outcomes of the long collaboration between the super-aesthete librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (an etiolated avatar of those chroniclers of end-of-days Vienna, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth) and the rather earthier, somewhat clunkingly waggish Bavarian composer, is how their wildly different artistic aims came together to create such layered and multi-faceted pieces.

She’s a sick girl all right, obsessed to the exclusion of everything by that murder

And admitting – indeed, celebrating – the less reputable aspects of Elektra (as with its predecessor Salome, with that preposterous Oscar Wilde script) should be a great help when it comes to staging the beast. It really doesn’t do to be too holy or po-faced about it; which is precisely what happens in this earnest production by the German director Christof Loy. Being all grown-up and psychological probably feels amazing, of course, but this is a gleeful revenge-tragedy to beat anything the Jacobeans could rustle up, a contrived family melodrama to knock any southern-hothouse, T. Williams-derivative into a cocked hat. Plus it’s got that musical score, Strauss’s very committed attempt to write the most extreme music ever produced, beyond even Salome, which itself had been created partly to prove that it was possible to be more boundlessly ardent, lyrical and louder than Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ and Siegfried’s funeral.

Strauss was a high-end sensationalist, brilliant at making things that would simultaneously disgust  a good part of the population and be massively lucrative hits. That’s really what Elektra was for, though of course it doesn’t stop it being a lot of other things too. Loy fastens on Hofmannsthal’s enjoyable fascination with the suppressed hysteria of end-of-Empire Vienna in the early 20th century, his spotlight people suffering severe mental trauma but (as yet) without the tools or language to describe or deal with it. This notion crops up throughout his librettos, most notably in Arabella, and in this staging, set in the gloomy and sordid courtyard of a palatial Viennese mansion of the period, presents us with a dead-daddy’s-little-princess Elektra very much overdue for a session with Doctor Freud. This is fun – Elektra likes to get sexy with sister and brother, by the look of things – but whether it’s actually a useful prism through which to examine the shenanigans in the House of Atreus is perhaps another matter. 

At the show’s centre is the most unstinting performance by soprano Ausrine Stundyte, standing in for Nina Stemme, who withdrew after some vocal trouble on first night. The Lithuanian Ms Stundyte hasn’t previously appeared here, but I’ve seen her a few times abroad, usually taking physical and psychological beatings in stagings by our old pal Calixto Bieito – and doing it brilliantly well. Actually I’d much rather hear her in the role than Ms Stemme, who is considerably older: the voice is still in full bloom, and she can pass rather more easily as the deranged teen. Elektra is an endurance role – she’s on stage singing for most of the hundred-plus minutes of this one-act piece – as well as an intermittently lyrical one, and she has to cover a lot of ground, from soaring over the biggest and loudest orchestra ever deployed, to the most intimate shadings of love and loathing, cajoling and taunting the surviving members of her family in her quest to see mama pay for Agamemnon’s murder. 

Pappano isn’t one to abandon himself to the frenzy, which is a bit sad

And yup, she’s a sick girl all right, obsessed to the exclusion of everything by that murder and the one she’s hoping brother Orestes will do: reliving, fantasising, dreaming, pre-enacting, living like a dog in the filth of the courtyard, an object of horror and disgust to everyone including the servants. Often, this opera gets set in some kind of cistern or abattoir, and you can see why – it cuts to the chase much quicker. Here in Johannes Leiacker’s design, things feel oddly civilised, a bit directionless: maids gather and chatter, their business obscure, random stuff goes on behind the palace windows above, people pop down to Elektra’s dump for a nice chat. Loy thinks that having these ever-so-sophisticated Viennese doing vile primitive Greek stuff will cast light on both worlds – and perhaps on our own too. But I dunno: one of Euripides’s points in the Oresteia was that this was a civilization in formation, not one on the brink of collapse. 

Anyway, it’s a decent enough setting, and uses the whole big stage nicely, even if the action is perforce a little limited. Elektra sees little sister Chrysothemis, then she sees her mum, then she sees Orestes, which finally makes her happy. Each of these encounters is given the works by Strauss, and Chrysothemis (American soprano Sara Jakubiak) shows what singing is really about. Eccentrically – for this family – little sis dreams of normal things, being a woman, having children, and Strauss gives her a sumptuous waltz to do it, and she sings with complete radiance. Karita Mattila, as tormented mother Clytemnestra, is less successful, but really her part calls for groaning more than actual singing, as the orchestra indulges in a feast of onomatopoeia to describe her wormy nightmares. And director Loy – as many of these guys do – seems to have got his ideas of how overwrought old ladies carry on from Ru Paul, which doesn’t do Ms Mattila many favours.

This is conductor Tony Pappano’s last show as music director here, and the orchestra he has schooled over 20 years is pretty wondrous: this is the most arduous and virtuosic music, one reason why it’s performed so rarely, and Pappano milks it of every detail. It’s true that the relentless Mickey Mousery of whips, dogs, crawling insects and the rest can get a bit tiresome, but there is a terrific sweep that carries you relentlessly along – and the time flies as Strauss visits all his favourite places, including quite a lot of Wagner-reminiscence (dragons, Valkyries) alongside his own refulgent idioms of huge, soaring string phrases and multi-orgasmic orchestral climaxes. From the appearance of Orestes, the momentum is unstoppable: the score’s tenderest moments, as Elektra sings unbelievably romantic things to him, followed by a relentless build-up to the final mayhem, with some welcome glimpses of black humour amid the carnage. It feels as if Strauss has actually found the place where music, taken to the most extreme place he can think of, itself becomes madness, which might help explain why his next opera was the super-civilised Rosenkavalier.   

Pappano isn’t one to abandon himself to the frenzy, which is a bit sad, but there are many compensations. The detail, the elegance, the control and vision are all fabulous. But for Elektra to have its true effect – ie, the world’s most expensively-wrought pity and terror – it really has to end in total apocalypse, the screams of the victims doubled by a demented orchestra, not so much an emotional catharsis as a quivering surrender to the relentless over-stimulation of opera taken to its logical conclusion, plus gallons of stage-blood and recherché ultra-violence. It feels weird to describe any production of Elektra as restrained. But somehow, these guys have managed it.

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