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The Austrian contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who created the role of Clytemnestra for the original production of Elektra in 1909, vowed she would “never sing the role again.”
“It was frightful,” she said. “We were a set of madwomen!” More than 100 years on, Richard Strauss’s one-act opera based on the Greek tragedy by Sophocles remains one of the most horrific and complex in the repertoire. The eponymous Elektra is torn apart by her all-consuming lust for vengeance, having seen her father brutally murdered by her mother, who is planning to leave her to rot in a dank tower. Before she can be captured, the tormented wretch enlists the help of her banished brother Orestes to carry out her gruesome revenge fantasy, then dances herself to death in twisted, triumphal ecstasy.
Western Australian audiences have all this and more to look forward to when WA Opera stages Elektra for the Perth Festival from February 8–14. In just under 100 minutes it packs a serious punch, making a visceral impact on performers and opera-goers alike. Conductor Richard Mills describes it as “action-packed” and “complex”. And director Matthew Lutton adds that the shocking, relentless drama and huge orchestral forces make for an “adrenalin-pumping experience” not for the faint-hearted.
“It’s for people who like roller-coasters and wild rides,” he insists. “It’s not swooning music that soothes you; it electrifies you, it shocks you, and it hurtles forward at an enormous pace.”
Lutton maintains that WA Opera’s staging is not a blood-soaked one, exploring instead the "dark corners" of psychological trauma and the internalised violence of Elektra’s state of mind. “We approached it as a piece of German expressionism. Everything that occurs onstage is a different part of her psyche, her obsessions, her vulnerabilities, her love. It’s about entering the mind and heart and psyche of Elektra.”
The star of the show, Danish soprano Eva Johansson, agrees that Schumann-Heink’s description of frightful madwomen pre-echoes her own experience in the title role. But unlike Schumann-Heink, who shrank away from such overwhelming chaos, she has gone on to sing in Elektra more than 40 times. “My husband tells me after a performance, ‘Oh, sweetheart, you’re just as you are at home!’” she jokes. “I just love it. I have this madness in me."
Not only is it an emotionally draining part to play; it demands huge reserves of energy and great vocal stamina from a soprano who doesn’t get a moment’s respite for the entire opera. “It is very difficult music,” says Johansson, “but once you have it mastered you have the freedom to let loose onstage.”
Along with Salome in the opera of the same name, Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is one of the fiercest, most monstrous creations in all opera. But Johansson also strives to portray her as sympathetic. “I really want people to cry at the end and feel sorry for Elektra,” she explains. “We shouldn’t forget that she saw her father being murdered when she was a small child. We have all our baggage as human beings with us when we perform and we can dig deep within ourselves because there are so many different feelings in Elektra.”
Lutton adds that “thinking about her father makes Elektra’s blood boil in an enormous rage, but it also makes her be a daughter and be incredibly vulnerable and experience moments of great loss; not only the loss of her father but loss of her innocence and beauty.
“We’re witnessing someone who has eroded in a horrible state of paralysis. And she lashes out like an animal, but the opera also reveals why she does that and what’s been stripped away from her.”
The young director is full of praise for his leading lady. “Eva can sing Elektra exquisitely and it’s an honour to hear her sing it, but she’s also able to create this erratic, dangerous person on stage; someone who is sarcastic and who spits at you, then is a lost child and almost collapses in loneliness. She finds not only the colours of the music but also the colours of the role.”
Sumptuous score aside, why should opera buffs subject themselves to such a harrowing journey? “It’s nightmarish,” Lutton admits, “but a lot of people find it exhilarating to be put through this experience because there’s an ecstatic purging that occurs. And you will leave with your heart still racing at 100 miles an hour.”