Richard Strauss’ dramatically disturbing and aggressively dissonant opus Elektra hadn’t been seen in the superb Prague State Opera house for 80 years. Keith Warner’s conceptually flawed new production augured that it may have been better to leave the status quo undisturbed. The main problem is that the director’s dominating focus is on the Jungian ‘Elektra complex’ rather than Elektra the opera.

Susan Bullock (Elektra) © Patrik Borecký
Susan Bullock (Elektra)
© Patrik Borecký

Set in a present-day museum, the raison d’être of Warner’s interpretation is that this timeless tragedy is nothing more than the hallucinations of a deranged philhellene. It had about as much to do with classic Greek mythology as Nana Mouskouri. Amidst a plethora of directional deviations, there were however two good ideas. The first was a short Pasolini-inspired video showing Agamemnon’s pre-narrative sacrifice of Iphigenia. The second was the suggestion that Aegisth is improving family conviviality by having sex with his stepdaughter Chrysothemis.

The set design by Boris Kudlička was a smallish two level museum with moving lateral modules for the interior of Schloss Atreus. Timelines were deliberately blurred. There was a rather drab 1950s kitchen looking like something out of Our Miss Brooks. The second module was Chrysothemis’ cutesy contemporary boudoir with prominent Ty Beanie soft toy and movie posters including The NeverEnding Story which supposedly underlined the fantasy basis of the production. Susan Bullock was required to perform beast of burden duties in pushing these modules on and off the stage. During the opening “Allein! Ganz allein” monologue, some central doors opened to reveal a paunchy bloodstained Agamemmon wandering around like Banquo’s ghost in singlet, underpants and bloodied shirt. The five maids sang the “Wo bleibt Elektra?” passage from proscenium boxes in inscrutable darkness.

Rosalind Plowright (Klytaemnestra) and Susan Bullock (Elektra) © Patrik Borecký
Rosalind Plowright (Klytaemnestra) and Susan Bullock (Elektra)
© Patrik Borecký

Like many directors who seem incapable of letting the music, text and orchestration convey the composer’s intentions, Warner seemed determined to visualize even casual remarks. During “Ich habe keine guten Nächte”, Klytaemnestra mentions amongst other disorders, liver problems (“meine Leber krank ist”). Warner seizes on this to turn the tormented matricide into a messy bourbon-swilling dipsomaniac with a pill-popping habit.

Because the young servant demands a fast horse, he is presented as a preening cowboy straight out of Warlikowski’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Eugene Onegin in Munich. Or worse, specific textual references are ignored such as Elektra begging to look into Orests’ eyes (“O lass deine Augen mich sehn!”) when she is gazing in the opposite direction and her brother is snoozing. The important axe was not forgotten (“Ich habe ihm das Beil nicht geben können!”) but given to Orests’ tutor.

Klytaemnestra gets her comeuppance in the kitchen by being first suffocated in a plastic bag, then decapitated. Orest puts her head in the bag and dumps it in Chrysothemis’ bed. He later pursues Aegisth around the down-market domicile with a cleaver in hand which looked about as terrifying as the Keystone Cops. As the consummate dramatist Hofmannsthal knew only too well, some things work much better unseen. In a novel dénouement Agamemnon reappears in his bath and miraculously manages to hack off his own head with the same cleaver defying all laws of physicality. The whole point of psychopathic retribution is made redundant. This sends Elektra into some kind of epileptic convulsions and the present is restored with the appearance of her siblings in mufti.

Anna Gabler (Chrysothemis) and Susan Bullock (Elektra) © Patrik Borecký
Anna Gabler (Chrysothemis) and Susan Bullock (Elektra)
© Patrik Borecký

Musically things were not much better. Aegisth (Richard Berkely-Steele) and the young servant (Michael Bragagnolo) were lacking Straussian technique. Chrysothemis (Anna Gabler) was depicted as a ditsy dreamer with an uncanny resemblance to Jennifer Aniston in Friends. She lacked the vocal stamina for this difficult role. Her low notes were inaudible and, for a native German speaker, her diction surprisingly poor. In the extraordinarily demanding title role Susan Bullock had some good mezza voce moments such as “zeig dich deinem Kind!” Unfortunately the top Cs and B flats frequently lost focus and the lower register was patchy. 

The most satisfactory performances came from a resonant Orestes (Kàroly Szemerèdy) and a fabulous Klytaemnestra sung by Rosalind Plowright. The confrontation with Elektra was the dramatic highlight of the evening. Her chest notes such as the low G sharp on “Kraft zu jäten” were Resnik-esque. She also showed commendable physical stamina bent over the sink, ostensibly headless, for about 30 pages of the score.

Maestro Roland Böer seemed more intent on keeping the huge orchestral forces subdued in deference to the singers than shaping any real musical line. There was some sensitive string playing in the accompaniment to  “unbegreifliches, erhabenes Gesicht” but far too many fluffed horn entries for a leading orchestra. The blandness of the orchestral playing reflected Keith Warner’s pallid and problematic production.

**111