Not Quite Frenetic Madness: Strauss' Elektra at the Royal Opera House

I have always been fascinated by Richard Strauss' Elektra. Despite never having listened to it in full, it has always been iconic to me of Strauss' dichotomy between viennese slice of life productions, such as Der Rosenkavalier or Arabella, and his emphasis on mythology often incorporated elements of Freudian psychology and madness, such as Salome, Elektra, and to some extent Ariadne auf Naxos. Having heard many of Strauss' other operas but never the iconic Elektra, I was excited. This production by the Royal Opera House won great acclaim from the audience in the house and reviewers. I appreciate the production, especially for its consistency, but found it slightly less convincing.

Synopsis and general information:

Elektra | Richard Strauss

Director | Charles Edwards
Set Design | Charles Edwards
Costume Designs | Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Design | Charles Edwards
Movement Director | Leah Hausman

Elektra | Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis | Adrianne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra | Michaela Schuster
Confidante | Louise Armit
Trainbearer | Marianne Cotterill
Young Servant | Doug Jones
Old Servant | Jeremy White
Orest | Iain Paterson
Orest's Companion | John Cunningham
Ägisth | John Daszak
First Maid | Anna Burford
Second Maid | Catherine Carby
Third Maid | Elizabeth Sikora
Fourth Maid | Elizabeth Woollett
Fifth Maid | Jennifer Check

Conductor | Andris Nelsons
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus
The design for this production was definitely a mix of interesting elements. The greek-inspired wall, translucent scaffolding, and revolving door dominated for almost the entirety of the opera. The significantly raked floorboards, splattered with blood, were put down, in part, by the maids at the beginning of the opera, while the desk and chairs served as anchors for the action. Drawing on so many elements the set certainly did pull the original Greek setting forward into a 19th or 20th century setting. What was missing, however, was a feeling of real inspiration. There was certainly plenty of visual interest and generally the scattered paper, bloodstains, and color palette contributed to an aura appropriate for the opera. Still, it did not feel as though the set directly contributed to the success and emotional drama of the performers. Yes, they used elements of the set in their acting, but it did not seem to push them. The costuming, divided between ornate dresses and more sackcloth-like, almost grecian clothing (although definitely of a more recent period), had essentially the same effect. It does bear noting, however, that the shift in the set at the end of the production definitely had a profound impact. The revelation of bloody murder, fire, and general mayhem as the screen lifted definitely kicked the climax into a higher gear, bringing home the tense insanity of those moments. The mask, which leads to Elektra's death, had the same effect in the costuming realm, surprising and perhaps strange as it might seem.
It bears noting that the direction fell in the same vein. Interaction with dead women lolling about on the floor, attendants sexily lounging nearby, and so forth, was visually interesting and definitely put the production in the appropriately depraved Freudian mode. Indeed, it is possible to read into this elements about the depravity of Klytämnestra and those around her or to make larger claims about psychology and society. These elements, however, felt like a tangent to the main action, which is of course so focused on Elektra herself.
Christine Goerke's Elektra was rock solid in stamina and staying power. Never did it feel as though she was overwhelmed by Strauss' significant orchestral forces and her voice remained as robust at the end as at the beginning of the show. One peculiarity of Goerke's singing was a lightening as she ascended up through the passaggio and into her upper register. On the one hand, this is probably very healthy singing, shedding chesty weight from the voice that could be damaging and unattractive toward the top. It did leave a little bit of thrill to be desired in the higher passages though, because the voice has so much more of a lyric than dramatic quality. Still, given her impressive consistency, it is fair to say she did what she had to and did it well. Her acting was also well in character throughout. Here again, however, a little bit more thrill could have been exciting. While Elektra is certainly weary, saddened, and anticipatory, this felt like the core of Goerke's character. The psychological angst that drives Elektra's obsession not just with revenge and freedom but with ritualistic vengeance seemed somewhat lacking. Hence, at the climax it seemed sudden and a bit odd as Elektra goes into her frenzy and then dies. Perhaps Goerke intended this, making a statement about Elektra's character, but it undermined what was otherwise and incredibly solid performance by a stolid dramatic soprano who commanded one of opera's most difficult roles ably.

As Chrysothemis, Adrianne Pieczonka certainly offered a contrast to Goerke's Elektra. Dressed much more ornately and definitely attempting to appease her mother and the powers reigning over them, Pieczonka played Chrysothemis' grudging sycophancy to a hilt, relentlessly and emotively attempting to convince Elektra to see reason. She too remained consistent throughout the performance and contended well with the orchestra. Unfortunately some of the higher pitches seemed a bit of a struggle at times, though at others they were thrilling and fully supportive of Pieczonka's characterization. Not unlike Goerke, she also seemed to switch suddenly and a bit unconvincingly toward the end of the opera as she became complicit with Orest's vengeance, though the writing of the character may be culpable for this, at least in part. Still, it was a solid performance and, perhaps more than Goerke, it felt as though Pieczonka truly embodied and lived the character of Chrysothemis, easing the process of suspending disbelief and seeing only the character rather than the performer. Certainly casting the two opposite each other was a superb choice.
Commanding in both presence and voice, Michaela Schuster dominated the role of Klytämnestra. The voice was not one of the sort possessing some unique characteristic making it instantly recognizable. Rather, the voice was of a moderately dark tint and full, allowing Schuster's acting to shine through. While it's true that Schuster failed to play the fragile psyche of the character, her more domineering role gave a sort of dramatic appropriateness to the opera's conclusion and made it perhaps even more convincing that her fears persist despite her outward shell of confidence. The most impressive moments of the show, due in large part to Goerke, as well, were the interactions between Klytämnestra and Elektra. Schuster was not a star, but definitely contributed to the overall work.

Orest enjoys little stage time for a male lead, but Iain Paterson played the role with pathos and nobility. Both his singing and his characterization showed Orest as tender toward the fraying Elektra while also a strong warrior bent on vengeance for the crimes of his mother and her paramour. He helped to amp up the tension of the work toward the end of the opera when the weaving of both the plot and the psychological drama come together, and added the needed element of sympathy necessary to make Strauss' description of the work as a tragedy, rather than just a drama about vengeance in which no one wins, ring true. Indeed, Paterson gave the feeling that it would almost be nice if Strauss had written Orest to have more stage time!

I frequently find I am impressed by the abilities of supporting characters in Wagner and Strauss operas. Elektra, focused as it is on the main characters, may not be a work in which the supporting characters are so wrapped in that they can truly make or break a show, but in this production it was no different - the supporting characters were all quite effective, whether those with individual roles or the maids. It helped round out a solid ensemble and bring to life the character of the setting.
Andris Nelson led the Orchestra of the ROH and the entire ensemble admirably, bringing out the contrasts in Strauss' innovative, evocative score. He especially excelled at demonstrating the frenetic angst in the tenser moments of the work. There were moments, both with the singers and with the orchestra alone, that truly made me sit back and say, "Aha, this is why this music was considered so fresh but also so powerful, and why it endures today."

It is not entirely clear what left this performance not entirely unsatisfying. Perhaps the aphorism, "close but no cigar" is apt for describing the sensation. Perhaps it was the direction of Charles Edwards the undermined a cast of performers that on paper (or in warm ups) seems like a tour de force. There were indubitably moments of great tension and release and the singing was impressive for so difficult a work. Still, both musically and interpretively it felt like that tension would drop at certain moments or fail to hit a peak that felt very much within reach. The musical difficulties are noted here, but they were truly very, very slight. Interpretively though, Edwards might have been able to guide performers toward interpretive choices that drew out the power of each character rather than serving a more abstract dramatic vision. This would have brought the performance from good to truly exceptional.

I am very glad to have had the opportunity to see this performance of Strauss' Elektra. I have always been intrigued by it and given the Strauss I have seen, I have had a sampling now of the composer's full operatic canon. This slightly abstract performance definitely prepared me for the very avant-garde production of Beethoven's Fidelio that I saw shortly after, which will be reviewed shortly.


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