Elektra, written by Richard Strauss in 1909, is in many ways the ideal opera: a plot based on a Greek tragedy, its themes reviewed through the lens of modern psychoanalysis; a collection of over-the-top characters, whose darkest emotions are revealed through primitive rituals, and a blood bath. The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is firmly in the tradition of expressionist poetry, while the music, flowing uninterrupted for one hour and forty minutes, gives a unique, powerful account of the love, hate, rage, vengeance and guilt that are tearing this powerful family apart.

Michaela Martens (Klytaemnestra) and Nina Stemme (Elektra) © Cory Weaver
Michaela Martens (Klytaemnestra) and Nina Stemme (Elektra)
© Cory Weaver

According to Sophocles’ tragedy, the great Agamemnon, King of Argos, is killed by his wife Klytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisth, as soon as he arrives home from the ten-year Trojan War. Klytaemnestra’s hate for her husband is understandable; Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to ensure a successful war campaign. Their other daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, now live with Klytaemnestra and Aegisth, while Orest, their only brother, has been exiled and is believed dead. Elektra is consumed by her desire to avenge her father Agamemnon. She dreams of murdering the treacherous couple, but fails to convince her younger sister to follow her plan. When Orestes returns, he accomplishes Elektra’s fantasy by killing their mother and her new husband, usurper of the throne, together with all their followers, while Elektra dances herself to death in a frenzy.

Michaela Martens (Klytaemnestra) © Cory Weaver
Michaela Martens (Klytaemnestra)
© Cory Weaver

Sir David McVicar sets the story in the crumbling royal palace in Argos, where a steep staircase descends into a pit, resembling a grave: it is the basin where Agamemnon was murdered. While Elektra was clothed in a simple robe, John MacFarlane’s costumes for Klytaemnestra and her court are reminiscent of a dystopian future (Mad Max comes to mind): crinoline gowns, glittering corsets, ghoulish makeup, women with bold heads. Klytaemnestra’s appearance was almost cartoonish, with her huge, naked breasts, golden skullcap and tons of jewellery. The production was very successful in depicting the debauchery of the court; the contrast with Elektra’s obsession and darkness was staggering. In the final scene, blood flows down the staircase and Elektra dances in it, like in her prophetic vision, dipping her hands in it and smearing it on her face, like an obscene baptism.

Nina Stemme (Elektra) © Cory Weaver
Nina Stemme (Elektra)
© Cory Weaver

Elektra requires one of the biggest orchestras in opera. The Lyric Opera Orchestra tackled the beautiful, harrowing score with passion and mastery. Strauss’ nearly symphonic music can easily become overwhelming, but the careful leadership of Donald Runnicles managed to keep the sound in a range that didn’t overpower the singers. Even the splendid brass section (mostly) succeeded in working with the singers.

The score for Elektra is among the most difficult Strauss (or any other composer, really) ever wrote. Nina Stemme performed the role with incredible intensity, confirming that her career is in a magical moment. Her immense voice was shattering in her rage, perfectly conveying Elektra’s fury and complete imbalance, reaching incredible heights with ease, inspiring terror and awe. In the lyrical passages – the longing after her father, the attempt to manipulate Chrysothemis – she found a tenderness, veined by anguish, which perfectly contrasted with the frenzied scenes. An accomplished actress, she used her physicality with great mastery. Her body language perfectly described the “wild animal” that Elektra had become, only to melt into sensuality in the scene with Orestes when, if for only a moment, joy removed any anguish from her singing. The recognition of Orest was a heartbreaking scene, the highlight of the evening.

Elza van den Heever (Chrysothemis) and Nina Stemme (Elektra) © Cory Weaver
Elza van den Heever (Chrysothemis) and Nina Stemme (Elektra)
© Cory Weaver

Elza van der Heever was a wonderful Chrysothemis, her voice warm and bronzed, with beautiful high notes sustained by a powerful middle range. I was impressed by her legato in the upper register, which helped in painting Chrysothemis as a tragic figure, a stark contrast to the weak, silly girl that she sometimes results. The voices of the two sisters were perhaps too similar, which portrayed them as equals more than what is customary.

Michaela Martens was a strong Klytaemnestra; the swagger required to come out in that costume was matched by a confident, powerful mezzo. Iain Paterson convinced as Orest, with a clear, well-supported baritone. Aegisth was Robert Brubaker, who appeared in drag, perhaps a take on Elektra calling him “jenes andre Weib” (that other woman).

Finally, as the blood flowed and the tension mounted, the curtain fell, and the audience exploded in a well-deserved ovation.

****1