Strauss' masterpiece Elektra is a psychological drama based on the wonderful libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal after Sophocles' classical tragedy. The events are foretold, envisioned, narrated and heard, but rarely acted on stage. The focus of the opera is the psychological state and reactions of the main three characters to the terrible tragedy unfolding in their über-dysfunctional family. From this point of view, the claustrophobic sets by Bente Lykke Møller served the opera well, reducing the scene to two empty, narrow corridors not much more than one meter wide, one along the orchestra pit and one perpendicular to it, cut between two gigantic blood-red cubes looming over the stage. The singers can move only in one dimension, and the direction focuses all the attention on the characters and their internal struggles. The only object we see on stage is Agamemnon's axe, brandished by Elektra during her revenge hallucinations.

Iréne Theorin (Elektra) © Sara Strandlund
Iréne Theorin (Elektra)
© Sara Strandlund

Iréne Theorin was a wonderful Elektra. From the very moment she walked on stage in a simple long, black tunic with her long dishevelled hair and her signature black eye makeup, she captured the audience's attention completely and drove the whole performance with commanding skill. Her vocal qualities are well suited to the role, as she has proven time and again in many major theatres. Her dramatic soprano was full of nuances and dynamics, her huge beautiful high notes soaring over the Kungliga Operan, finding the most tender, sweet mezza voce needed in the more lyrical moments. The metal in her voice made the theatre tremble. Her Elektra was positively scary when she envisioned the bloodbath that would underscore her revenge. She was cunning and cruel during her dialogue with her mother, seductive and maternal in the manipulation of her sister. The stage directions described an Elektra as completely unable to function: she could barely walk, stumbled around in a clumsy attempt to dance, and could not hug her brother, Orestes, when she finally recognized him, but pressed herself against the wall, overwhelmed by emotion. When brother and sister finally touched after the end of the duet, it became a magical, relieving moment.

Iréne Theorin (Elektra) and Cornelia Beskow (Chrysothemis) © Sara Strandlund
Iréne Theorin (Elektra) and Cornelia Beskow (Chrysothemis)
© Sara Strandlund

Chrysothemis was the young Swedish soprano Cornelia Beskow, whose Sieglinde was greatly admired in Stockholm last year. Her soprano lirico drammatico offered a fitting counterpoint to Theorin's: the voices of the two singers expressed the different personalities and neurosis of the two sisters perfectly. Beskow gave life to a human, almost reasonable Chrysothemis; she was convincing in her desire for a normal life, a normal family, and perhaps children, even in the midst of all the horror. Her meltdown during the carnage at the end was heartbreaking. Her voice was luminous, with a well-set lower register supporting impressive high notes. At the première, some of the extremely exposed high notes had a somewhat shrill tone but, overall, she definitely confirmed the wonderful impression she gave last spring in The Ring.

Katarina Dalayman (Klytaemnestra) and Iréne Theorin (Elektra) © Sara Strandlund
Katarina Dalayman (Klytaemnestra) and Iréne Theorin (Elektra)
© Sara Strandlund

The role of Klytaemnestra was sung by Kungliga Operan's veteran Katarina Dalayman. Her interpretation was intense and believable: she was composed in her delivery of one of the greatest euphemisms of the whole operatic repertoire (“Ich habe keine guten Nächte”) one moment, the next moment, she was completely broken, laying prostrate and shaking when confronted with Elektra's merciless description of her imminent murder. Director Staffan Valdemar Holm depicted Klytaemnestra as feeble, almost incapable of walking without the assistance of her ladies-in-waiting, but vocally she was in full command of the character, with a full, powerful mezzo, never losing the frame of the voice, even in the most tragic and emotional moments.

All the characters, from Ola Eliasson's Orest, to Jonas Degerfeldt's Aegisth, to the maids, gave good performances that contributed to the overall enjoyment of the opera. The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Simone Young, gave an honest, committed, powerful reading of Strauss' complex, overwhelming score. Young managed to drive the performance without ever losing the tension, exploiting the few lyrical moments (for example, after Elektra's moving “Zeig dich deinem Kind!") and keeping the many loud, powerful orchestra outbursts under control. After one hour and 45 minutes of uninterrupted music, the orchestra screamed the triad "Agamemnon!" one last time. As the curtain finally came down, the audience exploded in a liberating cry and applause, sealing a deserved success.

****1