From the orchestra’s first crashing cords introducing 100 minutes of musical psychodrama, everything seems to fit Balázs Kovalik’s interpretation of Elektra on stage at the Hungarian State Opera. But then he spoils it. By having Orest machine gun his sisters, Kovalik turns the final seconds of what Strauss called “my best opera,” into a B-movie cliché. The faux pas is all the more regrettable because this 2007 production has enough good ideas not to have to resort to any drastic overreach. And it’s even better visually than back then with the aid of new stage machinery and lighting installed more than two years ago.

Szilvia Rálik (Elektra) and Gábor Bretz (Orest)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Kovalik’s interpretation is creative in places and bold in others without harming Strauss’ work... at least until those last dismal seconds. Elektra clutches a tree of life for most of the performance in a palace where nothing else grows. She wears black, both a symbol of mourning and a celebration of the death she wishes on her mother for having her father murdered. Chrysothemis, her sister who yearns for a husband, children and a life celebrating life, is clad in white. A mirror placed backstage shows conductor Balázs Kocsár leading the orchestra, a lovely concept that adds to an understanding of Strauss’ powerful musical soundscape.

Szilvia Rálik (Elektra) and Istvan Horvath (Aegisth)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Holding true to Greek drama, Kovalik keeps the action in one place. But don’t look for Doric columns or temple ruins. The curtain rises on women wrapped in towels standing on a green-tiled platform. Others are dressed in white nurses’ and orderlies’ uniforms. Naked, a few shower themselves in the background. We are in a sanatorium and it’s clear why: everyone here is crazy.

Elektra lives only to see Klytaemnestra, her mother, slaughtered for killing Agamemnon, her father. Klytaemnestra, Queen of Mycenae, is haunted by horrible visions. When Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister, is not convulsed by panic attacks over Elektra’s demand that she join in killing her mother and his consort, she agonizes at the thought of being held in the palace until the end of days. Aegisth, the queen’s paramour, suffers from extreme paranoia and fear of strangers. Even Orest is nuts, at least in Kovalik’s rendition. Why else would he kill the king and queen, slaking one’s sister’s thirst for revenge and the other’s for freedom, only to dispatch them as well?

Adrienn Miksch (Chrysothemis) and Szilvia Rálik (Elektra)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Szilvia Rálik was a powerful Elektra – a bit too much so occasionally in an opera with some of the most challenging vocal lines of the oeuvre. Her pitch suffered when she opened up in some places. But she found more of her middle as the evening progressed. The role of a woman roiled by passionate hate calls for a voice with a diamond-cutting edge, and Rálik delivered. Her high B flat on her cry of “Orest!” when she recognized her brother was the final scene’s chilling vocal highlight.

As Chrysothemis, Adrienn Miksch brought out the best of a hardly less demanding role, easily combing high passages close to Rálik’s in difficulty with emotionally intense lyrical musings. Atala Schöck added admirable stagecraft to her dramatic mezzo to convey Klytaemnestra’s fears and anxieties, most notably in her standout “Ich habe keine guten Nächte,” as she relates her nightmares to Elektra. István Horváth (Aegisth) conveyed the requisite distrust of one fearing an assassin behind every door. And while a costuming miscue putting sunglasses on Gábor Bretz evokes comparisons to Agent Smith in Matrix, his bass was velvet, and his demeanor worthy of Orest, the son of the murdered king.

Szilvia Rálik (Elektra) and Atala Schöck (Klytaemnestra)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Strauss uses dissonance to good purpose in reflecting the intense emotions of his characters. But its effect is in its execution and conductor Balázs Kocsár delivered on the composer’s intention. He left little to wish for in an interpretation of a score that moves from percussion-powered overdrive in one minute to lyrical ear candy in the next and everything in between. And that’s saying something because, more than many other operas, Elektra demands a fine conducting hand along with virtuosity from its singers and sensitivity from its director.