Despite the presence of Mark Elder in the pit and Susan Bullock making her house debut in the title role, the first night of the Royal Opera’s revival of Elektra was a rather low-voltage affair. Acting and singing honours of the evening went to German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, in the secondary role of Chrysothemis.
Elder, a far too infrequent visitor to the London opera houses these days, was characteristically punchy without ignoring the under-swell of romanticism beneath the score’s spiky exterior. The intensity of the orchestra’s performance wasn’t always reflected onstage in Charles Edwards’ direction, though.
Bullock is a very fine dramatic soprano and undoubtedly has all the qualities for a great Elektra but she isn’t quite allowed to be that in this production. There’s a reticence in her portrayal, with a lack of physical commitment, everything too clean and polite. There’s no sense of someone eaten up with a lust for revenge. Chair-throwing, far too common in the opera house, is as always no replacement for real emotion and Bullock’s final dance is awkward and uncommitted. It’s fair to say, though, that her rapturous reception at the curtain call would indicate disappointment not to be a popular reaction to her performance.
Jane Henschel, poured into an ill-fitting glittering dress, similarly doesn’t fully inhabit the role of Klytemnestra, although her psychotic mirth at the news of Orest’s reported death shows hints of the kind of abandon it would have been good to have seen sooner.
Anne Schwanewilms returning to the house for the first time since her stunning Ariadne four years ago is an elegant and repressed Chrysothemis, floating glorious sounds and with a dramatic intensity that wipes everyone else off the stage whenever she appears. One looks forward to her Elsa in Lohengrin (coming to the ROH during the 2008/9 season) with anticipation.
Of the male cast, Danish baritone Johan Reuter is a rich-toned, if slightly lumpy, Orest but Frank van Aken, in a first performance at Covent Garden, doesn’t make a strong impression as a petulant and tuxedoed Ägisth. Alfie Boe appears, with ponytail, in the small role of the Young Servant.
The design by director Charles Edwards (as so often not quite coming off when the roles are doubled) has a huge glass façade with revolving doors sitting at right angles to crumbling masonry studded with a frieze of mounted warriors, just as the modernity of Strauss’ score and Hofmannsthal’s libretto butt up against the classical subject matter.
The triangular space created is ungenerous and it’s only in the final moments, when the wall flies open and we see the extent of Orest’s vengeful bloodlust, that the stage is fully utilised. The effect is impressive but not great enough to justify one and half hours of a cramped and confining acting area.
Most of the ingredients are there for a great show but somehow the various elements are not galvanised into a pleasing whole. The Royal Opera’s previous production by Götz Friedrich, for all its faults, was far more powerful.