Elektric intensity almost perfect at Covent Garden | Theatre | Entertainment

This notoriously difficult and intense opera is based on a Greek myth and was first performed in 1909 when Strauss was establishing himself as the natural successor to Wagner as the greatest and most innovative opera composer of his age.

The story centres on an epically dysfunctional family: Elektra is the daughter of Klytemnӓstra and King Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks during the Trojan War, but Klytemnӓstra had taken a new lover, Ägisth, and the two of them had murdered Agamemnon. Elektra had vowed revenge, for which she was demoted from Princess to servant, which is the state we see her in at the start of the opera.

To make family relationships even worse, Klytemnӓstra has exiled Elektra’s brother, Orest, though fear that he too will want to avenge Agamemnon’s death, and Klytemnӓstra issues orders for him too to be killed.

Indeed, the only character in the story who is not under sentence of death or wanting to kill anyone is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, who just wants to bring peace to the family.

Strauss matches the seething intensity of the plot with music of huge power, played to perfection by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, brilliantly conducted by Antonio Pappano. 

One of the main responsibilities of an opera conductor is to achieve the right balance between the singers and the music itself, and Pappano always achieves this. The effect when the music carries as much emotional power as the story can be stunning and that is achieved by the current Elektra.

The emotional climax of the story comes when Orest returns secretly from exile, intent of killing his mother and her lover. At first, he and Elektra do not recognise each other, but the relief and triumph when they finally do so is one of the most powerful musical moments in any opera.

This blend of action and music is what opera is all about, and the singers, the orchestra and Antonio Pappano all play their parts in making it work perfectly.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme handles the demands of the hugely demanding title role in impressive style. Rarely off the stage and always playing a large part in the singing and action, she never lets her dominating voice or powerful acting ability flag.

She receives excellent support from Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the evil Klytemnӓstra and from American soprano Sara Jakubiak as Chrysothemis. 

With these three sopranos dominating proceedings, there was not much opportunity for the other singers to make a great impression but Polish bass-baritone Łukasz Goliński gave an excellent performance in the relatively small role of Orest.

The German director Christof Loy clearly did an excellent job to bring the best out of the singers, but I was somewhat confused by some aspects of his production. The set was clearly designed to match early 20th century Vienna, where the opera was written, rather than ancient Greece where the story came from.

There were consequently some incongruencies, such as the juxtaposition of electric lighting with burning torches. Performing ancient myths in modern dress also often looks wrong, particular when the warriors are wearing dinner jackets.

However, those are only minor quibbles hardly distracting from the impressive singing and playing of a difficult opera whose music is rarely performed so effectively.

Box Office: roh.org.uk or 020 7304 4000 (various dates until 30 January; tickets £49 to £200)

Photos: by Tristram Kenton ©ROH 2024

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