Stockholm Royal Opera
16 December 2009

from April 2010 Opera

Staff have been complaining about lack of space in Stockholm’s Royal Opera for years. The current building, completed in 1892, is short of backstage space and has a smaller stage than many major opera houses. After many years lobbying, there is at least now open discussion of plans to build a new house of some kind.

None of this prevented Staffan Valdemar Holm and Bente Lykke Møller, the team behind Stockholm’s 2006 Ring cycle, from reducing the stage to a narrow two-metre deep strip for their new Elektra. Dark red walls, entirely without adornment, extend high above the proscenium arch and extend nearly the full width of the stage, save for a narrow central corridor extending toward the dark interior of Mycanae’s ill-fated palace.

As stagings go, this must have been on the cheap side. But there is nothing cheap about the idea. A sense of claustrophobia, oppression and immobility, is of course entirely central to the opera’s psychological landscape, and the radical foreshortening of the stage managed to induce all of these emotions before a note had been sung. And though there was nothing comforting about the walls themselves, the cast clung to them, singing with their backs pressed hard against them or creeping to and fro with an awkwardness strongly suggestive of vertigo.

This tendency reached its apogee in the figure of Marianne Eklöf’s Klytemnestra, whose coterie of ladies in waiting was largely dedicated to the task of assisting her in walking, adding a layer of pity to the deep disgust in which she is routinely held. Katarina Dalayman’s Elektra, too, had the awkward, clumpy gait of a teenager shod in Dr Martens two sizes too big – something which lent to her final, life-transcending dance a touch of hilarity and honesty. After all, how would someone whose entire being has long been consumed by the frustrated desire for bloody revenge suddenly find themselves able to move fluently to Strauss’ lurching waltz.

Much of this would have been lost, of course, were the ideas not carried through in some masterful and subtle singing from the lead characters. Eklöf’s entreaties were wonderfully subtle, inviting both revulsion and, more unusually, considerable sympathy in a portrayal that striking in its maturity given the comparative youth of the singer. As for Dalayman, could it be too much to assert that she was born to sing this role? Though lacking some of the raw power of the role’s traditional exponents, her voice is superbly strong and flexible, able to fade with remarkable agility from a searing full tone to something altogether more delicate. In the role, this has the effect of reinforcing our awareness of the singer’s youth and essential vulnerability, adding considerably to the drama. Yet despite this, there was no sense in which – perhaps in contradiction to Strauss’s famous encomium to the opera’s first conductor – Dalayman could not be heard above Pier Giorgio Morandi’s wonderfully lithe house orchestra.

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