Photo, Tristram Kenton

Friday, January 12, 2024

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

The Royal Opera House’s first new production of the year is also the last that will be conducted by its outgoing music director, Sir Antonio Pappano – a collaboration with director Christof Loy and Nina Stemme in Strauss’s Elektra (1909) which was originally programmed for 2020 before falling victim to the pandemic. The febrile world of the machinations within the Mycaenean palace, which Klytämnestra’s has usurped with her new partner Ägisth after their murder of her husband Agamemnon, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s retelling of Sophocles’s play is a particularly apt scenario for treatment by Loy. He deploys his characteristic strategy of confining the drama within the claustrophobic enclosure of a rather monochrome domestic setting in which familial strife and tensions may play out.

Those vengeful conflicts find their home here in a grand (but now somewhat grubby) town house in the native Vienna of the librettist’s own time, around the turn of the twentieth-century (think, perhaps, of the recent TV crime drama Vienna Blood). Although not explicitly referenced, it surely cannot be insignificant that the violence of the First World War was imminent. But it was also the era of Freud and the uncovering of the darker forces underlying the human psyche, which certainly did influence Hofmannsthal. Neurosis isn’t really brought into the open in Loy’s interpretation – enough of that is expressed in the libretto and score – but simply hovers over the dark, gloomy atmosphere of the house, and perhaps symbolised in the set’s telling interface between the action out in the courtyard and the sparse but wide room inside of the household now presided over by Klytämnestra as an aging, though still energetic socialite (it is peopled by revellers in party dress).

Rather than concentrating the drama’s heady, intense emotions and clashes of personality within that enclosed setting, Loy tends to inoculate them and downplays the drama’s sensationalism by drawing out more human, sympathetic elements of the characters’ motivations and behaviour, instead of turning them into histrionic archetypes. Stemme expresses herself as supremely determined and earnest – by turns mellow and thoughtful, or steely and direct, but generally focused (if some of her higher, heavy notes go slightly astray). Even if Elektra is cast aside by Klytämnestra and made almost literally an outsider the entire time by having her operate out in the courtyard and never in the palace itself, she is no possessed, wild animal. Her fellow serving maids lounge around with her in the first scene with no more or better decorum.

Apart from Klytämnestra’s (silent) mocking laughter directed at Elektra, Kartia Mattila also creates an account of the role that makes the queen seem entirely reasonable, and the confrontation with Elektra is almost tender, as though re-establishing a normal relationship with her daughter. Mattila’s quiet control over the music (even dangerously under the orchestra in her first phrases) skilfully conveys a mind riven by fears and doubts in the slight tremble she gives to some notes, and a defensively brittle strength to others. Sara Jakubiak is a playful Chrysothemis with a brightness and ardour in her singing, as Elektra’s sister whose response to the family crisis (perhaps naively) is that she seeks a woman’s future with a man to have children, a destiny from which she has so far been kept by their mother. But she sounds none the worse for that, adding a tone of cheer to the performance.

In the context of Loy’s interpretation, Łukasz Goliński’s Orest rightly eschews any bold heroism but resorts to a more solidly reassuring, grounded musical personality, and makes himself known to Elektra after years of exile in a moving recognition scene. Charles Workman’s Ägisth is no wily or charismatic showman but sounds as though purposely ineffectual, and not upsetting the more vivid, contrasting musical and dramatic balance forged among the three principal female roles.

Despite a more or less nervously fast pace at the opening, Pappano sustains a fairly restrained reading of the score that settles into a chamber-like blend where particular instrumental details often emerge (for instance, graphically depicting the swatting of flies or the yelping of dogs at the hunt mentioned in the dialogue) more than the music’s long sweep. Attention to its quieter dimensions seems to come about by deliberate consultation with Loy who says in the programme note that he is struck by how often piano and pianissimo are marked in this score, famed for its searing, strident nature. Only in the final bars does the performance surge into a sense of crackling, uneasy triumph. Those looking for a typically high voltage realisation of either the music or the drama won’t find that here. But the production carries convincingly its own calmer and considered slant upon the work.

Further performances to January 30

Strauss

Elektra – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Sophocles [sung in German with English surtitles]

Elektra – Nina Stemme

Chrysothemis – Sara Jakubiak

Klytämnestra – Karita Mattila

Orest – Łukasz Goliński

Ägisth – Charles Workman

Orest’s Companion – Michael Mofidian

First Maid – Noa Beinart

Second Maid – Veena Akama-Makia

Third Maid – Gabrielė Kupšytė

Fourth Maid – Ella Taylor

Fifth Maid – Valentina Puskás

Overseer – Lee Bisset

Confidante – Marianne Cotterill

Trainbearer – Amanda Baldwin

Young Servant – Michael Gibson

Old Servant – Jeremy White

Servants – Amy Catt, Tamsin Coombs, Andrea Hazell, Kiera Lyness, Deborah Peake-Jones, Cari Searle

Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Sir Antonio Pappano

Christof Loy – Director

Johannes Leiacker – Designer

Olaf Winter – Lighting

Curtis’s review will also be published on The Classical Source website