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Strauss, Elektra: at the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, 12.12.2009 (Premiere) (GF)

Directed by Staffan Valdemar Holm

Sets and costumes by Bente Lykke Møller

Lighting design Torben Lendorph

Dramaturgy by Stefan Johansson


Clytemnestra – Marianne Eklöf

Elektra – Katarina Dalayman

Chrysothemis – Emma Vetter

Aegisthus – Magnus Kyhle

Orestes – Johan Edholm

Guardian to Orestes – John Erik Eleby

Confidante to Clytemnestra – Agneta Lundgren

Train-bearer – Barbro Hillerud

Young Serving-man – Niklas Björling Rygert

Old Serving-man – Tomas Bergström

Overseer – Angela Rotondo

Five Maids – Kristina Martling, Annica Nilsson, Katarina Leoson, Sara Olsson, Madeleine Barringer
The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Pier Giorgio Morandi

Elektra – Katarina Dalayman

In spite of an impressive number of dramatic sopranos at the Royal Swedish Opera throughout the 20th century, Elektra has been a relatively rare guest in the house at Gustav Adolf Square. The first production was mounted as late as 14 May 1965, directed by Rudolf Hartmann from Munich with sets and costumes by Jan Brazda. Berislav Klobucar was the conductor and the title role was sung by Birgit Nilsson, who then brought the role to many of the important opera houses. Barbro Ericson was Clytemnestra, Berit Lindholm sang Chrysothemis and Erik Saedén stepped into Orestes’ shoes. I heard the premiere on Swedish Radio and some years later saw the production with the same Clytemnestra, Orestes and conductor. On 11 September 1993 I saw the premiere of the next production, directed by Folke Abenius and conducted by Siegfried Köhler. Berit Lindholm was in this production too, as guest, but now she was Clytemnestra, Laila Andersson was Elektra, Anita Soldh was Chrysothemis and Björn Asker Orestes. There were no sets, just the costumes – early 20th century – and the lighting. Now, one hundred years after the world premiere, the trio from the highly successful Ring des Nibelungen in Stockholm a couple of years ago – Staffan Valdemar Holm, Bente Lylle Møller and Torben Lendorph – have turned up trumps again.

The bare stage in Abenius' production is replaced by to red walls with a narrow passage between them leading into the interior of the castle, where Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus dwell after they murdered Clytemnestra’s husband, King Agamemnon, the father of Elektra, her sister Chrysothemis and their brother Orestes. Elektra is obsessed by the thought of revenge and is waiting for the day Orestes, who had been sent away, will return to help her carry through the revenge. This is basically the plot and what happens on stage is no action drama. As in the ancient Greek drama – and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play is based on Sofokles – all the external action takes place behind the stage. What happens before the eyes of the audience is the unfolding of mental status of the characters and their emotional conflicts. In the early 20th century psycho analysis was the buzzword and Hofmannsthal had studied for instance Studien über Hysterie (Studies on hysteria) by Josef Breuer and Siegmund Freud. In this production all the characters are in various stages of mental decay – or hysteria.

What remains of the stage in front of the red walls is a strip of floor, barely 1½ metres deep and here the various stages of hysteria are exposed. All the women – in high heels, Elektra excepted – stagger about, with distorted facial expressions, clinging to the walls. The men in this drama are reduced to subordinate figures, caricatures even, and only Orestes stands out as a human being. But he also staggers and clings to the walls – a broken man who only thanks to purposefulness of his efficient guardian is able to carry through the two murders.

Elektra, who is on stage practically continuously during the 1h 45m the opera lasts, is dressed in timeless black; all the others are in contrasting pastel coloured costumes – though Clytemnestra is in red. The only prop is the blood-stained axe with which Agamemnon was murdered and which Elektra has kept to be used for the revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

This is the framework, the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. How do they fit together? Do we get an unequivocal picture? An unequivocal picture – no. But we get a many-faceted picture that fascinates, frightens, enthrals, fills us with disgust, captivates us. Staffan Valdemar Holm has done a phenomenal job and created a gallery of clear-cut individuals on the verge of breakdown, and basically they represent different sides – or stages – of the human mind. Holm’s detailed direction, down to the smallest twitch in an eyebrow, and the ensemble’s implicit acceptance and devotion, has brought about a performance that seethes with life and has the onlooker on the edge of the seat. There isn’t a trivial moment and the minutes fly by in no time. To travesty Shaw: ‘When I looked at my watch after fifteen minutes a full hour had already passed’.

And what a cast! There are glorious voices even in the most minor roles and rarely have I seen an ensemble so intensely committed. Centre-stage – in more than one respect – is the fabulous Katarina Dalayman. She was a marvellous Marie/Marietta in Die tote Stadt a decade ago (also available on CD on Naxos), and her Brünnhilde recently was magnificent but this Elektra surpasses everything that has gone before: acting and singing so inseparably attuned and we have to go back to Birgit Nilsson to hear singing of comparable excellence – only that Dalayman has more warmth, is more vulnerable. Chrysothemis is sung by Emma Vetter and she is sensational, singing with a glow and intensity – and beauty of tone – that should send her directly to the big opera houses. Marianne Eklöf has had many memorable roles the last few years but her Clytemnestra is the most formidable character she has created and vocally she seemed rejuvenated. Johan Edholm’s dark baritone and sensitive acting makes him a believable Orestes and Magnus Kyhle adds a depraved and fulsome Aeghistus to his many excellent character portraits.

But direction, acting and singing, however outstanding, isn’t enough in this of all operas. It is in the orchestra that the clues, the comments, the illustrations are to be found and Pier Giorgio Morandi in his first Elektra inspires the Royal Orchestra to tremendous playing, the music gushing forth like a lava stream. This score has ever since the Dresden premiere been regarded as one of the greatest challenges for players, singers and audiences alike. In this production they go for knockout from the first bar and never let the tension slacken. The Royal Opera have produced many great performances but this is the greatest triumph in recent years. It requires to be seen and heard.

Göran Forsling

Photo © Hans Nilsson Royal Swedish Opera

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