Manfred Trojahn’s Orest is a music theatre piece in six scenes, set to a libretto that he also crafted, and based on the narrative of Euripides' drama. His work begins at the point where Richard Strauss’ Elektra left off, and it clearly carries recognizable strains of Strauss' kaleidoscope.

Evelyn Angela Gugolz (Klytaemnestra) and Georg Nigl (Orest) © Judith Schlosser
Evelyn Angela Gugolz (Klytaemnestra) and Georg Nigl (Orest)
© Judith Schlosser

On the heels of a bloodcurdling scream, Hans Neuenfels’ Zurich production opens on an unsettling note. Orest (Orestes), the most tragic figure in Euripides’ classic drama, lies on a stark metal bed in what appears to be an asylum. At the bidding of the god Apollo, Orest has murdered his own mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge her and her lover’s murder of his father, Agamemnon. But the heinous deed does not sit well. Erratic whispers and otherworldly sounds relentlessly play on the sheer terror of his delusion, and the room’s checkerboard-painted walls begin to pulsate visibly around him. Orest quivers in horror at the deed he has done, his eyes shiny like glass marbles.

Dressed from the very start in the all-whites that allude to both psychiatric patient and redeemer, bass-baritone Georg Nigl gave a powerhouse of a performance of the title role. His mastery of the highly complex score, with its radical tempo changes and ruthlessly demanding intervals, was sung with tremendous clarity, showing consummate musical ability matched only by his superb acting. When he mimicked his mother’s voice calling out to him six times in quick succession, for example, he sang each one with an entirely different colour. The terrific burden of ambivalence was seen heavy on his shoulders; yet once ready to strike and to free himself from the power of the gods, his whole body could resonate with the high voltage of an Expressionist painting.

Claudia Boyle (Helena) and Ruxandra Donose (Elektra) © Judith Schlosser
Claudia Boyle (Helena) and Ruxandra Donose (Elektra)
© Judith Schlosser

The score was a case for the horror of psychosis made music, a “No Exit” revised and reformed, a nightmare given palpable form. Originally written for Dutch National Opera, Orest premiered in Amsterdam in 2011. And while the work lasts only 80 minutes, it sizzles with intensity.

The trio of female roles was also in the hands of top-notch singers. As Elektra, Orest’s sister who incites bloodshed in the name of justice, the phenomenal Ruxandra Donose was costumed as a cross-gender activist: the mover and driver of the human action in the “modern” play. Donose’s voice was stellar, making her “blood must flow” conviction entirely plausible. The figure of the beautiful Helena, sister to the murdered queen, was as convincingly portrayed by the Irish soprano Claudia Boyle. Dressed like a double for Kim Basinger, with her glamorous dresses slit up the side, (Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, costumes) the superb singer took Hollywood chic to perfection. “Helena, you look like a woman who had swallowed gold!” was an apt assessment by the destructive god Apollo, sung by Airam Hernandez. He was cast as a conniving womanizer. Showy as his oversized strap-on penis was, it was his singing that rendered him his most potent, and the inherent humour of his exaggerated portrayal was welcome in the context of such terror on stage.

Claudia Boyle (Helena) © Judith Schlosser
Claudia Boyle (Helena)
© Judith Schlosser

Claire de Sévigné, a member of the Zurich’s International Opera Studio, took the role of Helena’s daughter, Hermione, to whom Orest feels a special attraction, even having murdered her mother after his own. The young Canadian soprano startled with the breadth of her range, and her silvery voice and ballerina-like costume made the perfect delicate counterpart to the weight of the other characters. She even dealt easily with one of the world’s strangest props: a 3-foot motorized cricket with two grossly oversized human heads, conjoined at the skull. If sharing that wouldn’t make one uncomfortable on stage alone, I don’t what would, but she sang to it convivially, nonetheless. Finally, as Menelaos, Raymond Very completed the cast of the six principals who were excellent without exception.

Claire de Sévigné (Hermione) © Judith Schlosser
Claire de Sévigné (Hermione)
© Judith Schlosser

The choir, under the direction of Ernst Raffelsberger, was also exemplary. Accolades go, too, to the set design (Katrin Connan) and lighting (Franck Evin) of the Neuenfels production. While highly effective as mirrors and pointers, both attributes were largely inconspicuous − rightly so, since their modesty kept the focus on the terror of the drama, rather than on the production details.

Finally, under the fine direction of Erik Nielsen, the Philharmonia Zürich met the challenge of this score’s wild mix of digital sounds, bombast, and terrifying pace that portrayed “dying in the torment of the (characters’) suffering”. Even early on in the opera, Orest had sung: “I am your instrument, God. Save me!” Through the prism of this extraordinary dense modern music, and even in the face of death, aggression and destruction, that line truly struck home.