Opera Review: Elektra - WA Opera

Richard Strauss is responsible for some of the most beautiful music ever written for the female voice.  With his opera Elektra, he is also credited as heralding the beginning of Modern Music and the birth of atonalism. 

Western Australian audiences have long been denied the experience of a live Strauss opera until now.  Thanks to the WA Opera and ThinIce, finally we get to experience the raw power of the huge orchestral and vocal forces this amazing work requires.

In a most impressive operatic directorial debut, Matthew Lutton draws on the darkest reaches of the human psyche to portray the inner turmoil of the central protagonist.  His view of the work is entirely from Elektra’s perspective, which in most instances works extremely well.

The curtain opens on Zoe Atkinson’s impressive, monochromatic set.  Black is the theme of the day here and all shades of grey paint the depressing inner world of Elektra.  Haunted by the murder of her beloved father, she despairs for the return of her brother in order to exact revenge for the heinous crimes committed by her mother and her mothers’ lover. 

For once we weren’t treated to maids scrubbing the floor and washing rags when the curtain opened.  Instead the maids played by Bernadette Lucarnus, Donna Friedl, Fiona Campbell, Harriet O’Shaunnessy and Jennifer Barrington stood orartorio-like, their arms black to the elbows, simply proclaiming the text like a Greek chorus.  It was refreshing to hear their music sung and not screeched and veteran soprano Merlyn Quaife stood over them as overseer, surely luxury local casting in such a small role. 

Eva Johansson has over the years created somewhat of a specialty of the role of Elektra.  She is completely immersed in her role and provided some brilliant singing and insights into this complex character.  Her voice was even across her entire range and notes above the stave were delivered perfectly on pitch.  It is great to hear Elektra’s music with such a secure, even delivery, thrilling in its intensity.  From this performance one can understand exactly why she is so in demand for this role worldwide.  I have heard two other broadcasts of Johansson as Elektra and she is in much more secure voice here than she was in both of those.  It was wonderful to see a singer of such magnitude in her signature role.

The only character that is clothed in anything resembling colour was the Chrysothemis of Orla Boylan.  Dressed is a simple floral shift dress she quickly tore this off to reveal a slip of dark wine, almost the colour of dried blood.  Her performance was impassioned and deeply felt, it was easy to sympathise with her longing for children, a husband and a normal life.  Vocally she is perfect for Chrysothemis, her rich soprano comfortable above the stave without ever sounding shrill or unfocussed.  She was a perfect foil for Johansson’s Elektra, and their duets together were most moving, especially the finale.

Klytemnestra is a fascinating character and often played in caricature by aging mezzos.  Elizabeth Campbell used her rich, dark voice to great dramatic effect, actually singing what is written rather than a Sprechstimme-like declamation, which made her interpretation all the more chilling.  Her entrance was one of the weaker moments in the opera, I thought at the time, but taking it into consideration under the entire concept for this production, in retrospect it made sense, from Elektra’s point of view she is a monster, and so we see her from Elektra’s eyes.  Completely bald and dressed entirely in white, she looked every part the unstable, psychotic matriarch, her laughter and death screams highly theatrical.

The men in this production were equally strong given that, compared to the ladies, they have relatively little to sing.  Daniel Sumegi used his huge bass voice to great advantage in the Recognition Scene as Elektra’s long lost brother Orestes.  He was appropriately sepulchral and mysterious in tone, his impact mesmerizing.  Barefoot and plainly dressed, he appeared out of the shadows and his following scene with Elektra was powerfully staged.  The farewell embrace was touching and beautifully intense.

Another veteran of the Australian stage, Richard Greagor, portrayed the aging lover of Klytemnestra, Aegithus.  He was appropriately sleazy in a pastel coloured step-father sense and vocally, while no longer with the voice he once had, more than adequately sung the role.  He was yet another example of the musical qualities of this production of Elektra.

The smaller male roles of the Old and Young Servants were adequately sung by Ryan Sharp and Samuel Sakker respectively.  The staging of this scene however, did not make sense.  Here again was another example of a stand and sing oratorio-like approach.  Neither engaging each other or Elektra as the libretto requires. 

As the Trainbearer and Confidante, Lucy Mervik and Sarah-Janet Brittenden did the best they could with ungrateful roles and somewhat limited directorial choices.  This interpretation leaves them rather irrelevant and I got the impression that Lutton didn’t really know how to reconcile them into his directorial vision.

Overall thogh, I thought that Matthew Lutton, in his first full opera production, showed immense talent.  As far as modern productions go, this is definitely one of the best I have seen. 

The device of having Agamemnon, impressively played by James Berlyn, onstage throughout the entire performance was an interesting one.  His shedding of human skin and exposing the blackened ghostly form underneath was kind of disturbing, but his interaction with the rest of the cast, in particular Elektra and Klytemnestra, was fascinating.  At times I found his presence distracting, and that he was often too brightly lit, melting into the blackness more would have made more of an impact in my mind.

The concept of seeing the entire action through Elektra’s eyes worked incredibly well.  It is a refreshingly original way of casting aside the trappings of a traditional production whilst shedding new light on one of the most influential operas of the early 20th Century.

There were some great moments, in particular the end of the scene between Elektra and Klytemnestra.  Here during the Queen’s calls of “Lichter!, Mehr Lichter!” they began the horrible laughter that Klytemnestra hurls at her daughter once she has heard the supposed news of Orestes’ death. 

As I mentioned before, I did not find the entrance of Klytemnestra particularly convincing, or for that matter tasteful.  I understand the reasons behind the idea but in my mind it could have been better staged.  This is all about ritual, that this act of sacrifice has been done many times before, there was little evidence of this I thought, and was played simply for its shock value.

However, from the moment after Aegithus’ death rattle to the final bars Lutton hit his stride.  The appearance of many lights was beautiful as was the final mental disintegration of the heroine and the accompanying staging.  Without spoiling anything here, this was one impressive finale and my hair stood on end for ages after thinking about it.

Costumes by Zoe Atkinson were rather drab, very limited use of colour or ornamentation, which was fitting for the interpretation.  Lighting by Paul Jackson was stark and impressive, again, lots of white light and shades of grey, but it worked very well.

I have often been rather critical of Richard Mills as a conductor, mainly because to me he seems rather rigid and doesn’t seem to give his singers room to expand phrases or linger on high notes.  With this Elektra he showed a great sense of spaciousness, and projected the forward momentum of the score with power, which is so important in this of all operas.  His grasp of the score was evident and he wrought some fantastic playing from the WA Symphony Orchestra who are at the top of their form.

One of the most impressive aspects of this production was the quality of the singing.  This is where Richard Mills excelled.  His insistence on remaining faithfull to the score paid off, the traditional cuts aside.  For once there was no warbling, pitchless above the stave singing, from the smaller roles to the main protagonist, neither were there spreschgesang approximations of notes and phrases and it was exquisite to hear.  This is one of the best sung Elektra’s I have heard or seen.

The gamble that the WA Opera took with staging this Elektra has certainly paid off.  It is a powerful piece of theatre that leaves an indelible impression on you for ages after.  I hope that Opera Australia see the value in bringing this brilliant production of what is in Australia, a much neglected opera into their repertoire. 

With standards like this there is no excuse not to continue bringing the inspired operas of Richard Strauss to West Australian audiences.  Well done on a thrilling night!

All photos by James Rogers, courtesy of WA Opera.