TLS review of Elektra, Royal Opera, Sweden

Feminism has a difficult time with opera. The majority of operas are by men, of course, as well as being mostly conducted and directed by them. Operatic heroines also have a tendency to get killed off before the curtain. Still, a good case has been made, notably by the American musicologist Carolyn Abbate, that the way female voices preside over the musical texture in opera ensures that, at the level of performance, female experience is often centrestage.

There are few operas which the female voice dominates as much as Elektra. The title role is one of the most demanding in existence, and requires the singer to be on stage for well over ninety minutes. The three main women also encompass the range of dramatic perspective in the opera, while the gaggle of maidservants – who approximate to Sophocles’ original chorus, discarded by Hofmannsthal from his play – amplify the psychological spectrum and our sense of its instability. Moreover, the dramatic presence of both male leads is generated by their physical absence for most of the opera. For much of the time, Orestes might simply be a figment of the three women's conflicting imaginations.

And yet the opera’s protagonist is not Elektra but Orestes. The opera is about Elektra, but the female characters all lack the capacity to act. They are trapped, Elektra in her solipsistic bloodlust, Chrystothemis in her maidenly dreams of escape, and Klytaemnestra, in fears she cannot even name. What the women control is representation: how actions should be interpreted, what rituals should be observed in order for their meaning to be absorbed. And in the psychotic context of the drama, it is this domain of representation that matters. The problem is that when it comes to performing the one rite left to the citizens of Mycaenae – revenge – the women by themselves are powerless.

The great strength of Staffan Valdemar Holm’s new production for the Stockholm Royal Opera is its emphasis on the claustrophobia of a world in which action and thought are so effectively divorced. The stage, designed by Bente Lykke Møller, is reduced to a narrow strip at the front, the characters spending most of their time pressed up tight against the blood-red wall that reaches high above the proscenium arch. The only depth is a dark, airless corridor in the wall’s middle. This is not a production for those in search of visual extravagance, but the staging has the advantage of concentrating our attention on Strauss’s hyperactive music.

The house orchestra were alive to the delicacy of Strauss’s score, guided through its twists, turns and changes of colour by Pier Giorgio Morandi. While the stylized acting was also mostly successful – particularly the awkward, dizzy movement of the women, a clumsiness that culminates in Elektra’s final dance – the singing was quite wonderful, and clearly extremely carefully prepared (all the soloists were singing their roles for the first time). Marianne Eklöf, who sang Fricka in Holm and Møller’s Stockholm Ring in 2006, was especially notable for her sympathetic interpretation of Klytaemestra (and for her youth – the part is often reserved for Elektras past their prime).

But however good the staging and the playing, Elektra stands or falls on the credibility of its heroine. Katarina Dalayman was evidently born to sing the part, and is arguably even better suited to it than Susan Bullock, currently singing the role at the Met and more often cited as the heir to Varnay and Nilsson. Dalayman’s merit lies not in the power and stamina of her voice but in the fact that it combines these qualities with a strange ability to retreat into a fragile, girlish tone from which both power and stamina are estranged. This allows us to see the damaged teenager behind the fulminating princess, and Dalayman to do justice to the shades of colour and emotion the role really requires.

Elektra expires once her rites have been observed, but the music continues baying for blood through the reiterations of the Agamemnon theme, crashing like waves against the palace walls. The attention now fixes on her sister Chrysothemis, at last beyond the reach of her family’s psychoses, but stranded by terror and loneliness. It is a portrait of the fragility of human freedom which demands that the character remain isolated. Holm has nevertheless decided she should be “rescued” by her brother. Has he a reason, or is the sense-destroying detail just an aberration?

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