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Savage and unremittently dark, Richard Strauss’ Elektra is a gritty psychological thriller, a tale of revenge, torment, matricide and – yes – love.
A dank and grey space; a desolate, Escherian stairwell; an eerie window through which filter shards of light like poison darts – these are the first things you see as the curtain draws open for Perth’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, a co-production between West Australian Opera, ThinIce, Perth International Arts Festival and Opera Australia. The scene is aptly set for a 100-minute tour de force, a vertiginous descent into the darkest depths of the human psyche.
Strauss’s masterwork – his first collaboration with Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal – is not exactly what you might call a light-hearted romp. Based on the Ancient Greek tragedy of the same name by Sophocles, Elektra is a grim chronicle of a woman’s obsessive hatred and desire for revenge.
Elektra (Eva Johansson) is gripped day and night by a single, all-consuming desire: to avenge the death of her father, Agamemnon, who was murdered by her mother Klytämnestra (Elizabeth Campbell) and Klytämnestra's lover Aegisth (Richard Greager). Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis (Orla Boylan) pleads with her to abandon her unhealthy obsession for revenge, Elektra is adamant that the time for action has come. With the help of her exiled brother Orest (Daniel Sumegi), she will restore dignity and justice to her world in the only way that seems appropriate: by slaying Klytämnestra and Aegisth.
Director Matthew Lutton brings the opera’s musical and textual substance to life with intellectual and artistic sure-footedness. Designer Zoë Atkinson transforms the stage into a visual representation of our heroine’s tormented psyche. Cold, bleak and surreal, the stylised set could easily serve as the backdrop for a 1920s German Expressionist film. The urge to externalise inner turmoil so dear to early twentieth-century Expressionism, is perfectly applicable here. As with the subjects in a painting by Edvard Munch or Ernst Kirchner, Elektra’s emotions escape pervade her environment in the darkest shades of noir.
Strauss's famous "Agamemnon" motif, a three-note call denoting the dead King or, more precisely, his obsessive presence in Elektra’s thoughts, is paralleled by one of Lutton's most interesting directorial choices: he provides an embodiment of Agamemnon in the form of actor James Berlyn, who remains still on stage for large stretches of the action but who, at key moments – such as the entrance of Kytämnestra and the announcement of Orest’s death – stirs to life and interacts with characters in haunting, symbolic ways. The message is clear: though physically absent, the King continues to dominate the lives of those he left behind, Chrysothemis, Orest, Klythämnestra and, of course, Elektra herself.
Danish soprano Eva Johansson is dazzling as Elektra. Widely considered one of the most taxing roles in the repertoire, it demands considerable vocal and dramatic stamina. Her sound is rich and full-bodied and she displays never-ending reserves of vocal energy. Her stage presence is magnetic, characterised by that very special brand of Nordic, larger-than-life boisterousness and an acting talent on a par with her vocal prowess.
Strauss’s music is dense, complex and suffused with an electric energy. It flows peerlessly from beginning to end, like a great river of sound, shifting restlessly in colour and mood. Moments of profound angst give way to points of bittersweet nostalgia and brooding introspection. This is a bold, self- assured score written by a composer at the height of his powers, as demanding on the ear of the listener as it is on the fingers and lips of the musicians playing it. All praise here to conductor Richard Mills and the West Australian Symphony orchestra for bringing the music off the page with tenacity and dramatic sensitivity.
In the end, after her gruesome goal is achieved and Klytämnestra and Aegisth are hacked to pieces at the hands of Orest, Elektra meets her end in a strangely poetic fashion. Frenzied and beside herself with sadistic joy, she dances herself to death. As Hofmannsthal put it in notes published after his death, “once the deed is done, her life implodes like a drone does when it has fertilised the queen bee”. Her sole purpose fulfilled, Elektra’s life energies simply ooze out of her and she, along with the ubiquitous spirit of her dead father, sink beneath a rising pool of otherworldly gunk, marking their transition from this world to the next.
It is perhaps grotesquely fitting that the closing night of this event took place on Valentine’s Day. For Elektra is, indeed, a tale of love. It may not the kind of love you find in a Mills & Boon novel or a Hollywood romcom; it may be dark, incestuous, bloodthirsty and maddening love, but it is love. Let's not kid ourselves – it is not lust for revenge that is the drive behind Elektra’s every thought and action, but her passionate and obsessive love for her father. But enough said there... I’ll leave that to Freud and Jung.