Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Elektra review – Christof Loy’s staging finally arrives at Covent Garden

12 January 2024


Delayed four years due to Covid, The Royal Opera’s new Elektra is orchestrally outstanding, but vocally under par.

Elektra

Elektra (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Christof Loy’s highly anticipated staging of Strauss’ devastating one act opera finally appeared at The Royal Opera, four years later than originally planned, having fallen victim to the pandemic in 2020. All the singers slated for its appearance then had been re-engaged – no mean feat in the the topsy-turvy world of opera planning – so on paper at least, this new Elektra looked set to tick all the boxes, especially as we were promised one of the world’s leading interpreters of the title role, Nina Stemme, as well as a strong supporting cast including Covent Garden favourite Karita Mattila as Klytämnestra.

The delay meant that this turned out to be Antonio Pappano’s final new production as musical director, and although purely coincidental, tied in nicely with his inaugural staging in 2002, another Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, again in collaboration with Loy. Given all this, expectations were high on the first night, maybe too high. Whilst there were many musical splendours and dramatic insights to enjoy, it fell short of being an Elektra for the ages.

What did transpire is that four years is a long time in opera. Nina Stemme is a committed artist, and has transfixed London audiences with career-defining performances over the years as Isolde and Brünnhilde. Elektra is a killer of a role, demanding a soprano who is not only capable of riding great swathes of orchestral sound, but also has the ability to float pianissimo high notes. It was clear that Stemme’s voice was not ‘speaking’ as she intended, packing up altogether for the final declamatory notes hurled at her mother in the opera’s pivotal central scene, and causing her to sing part of the Recognition Scene an octave lower than Strauss had intended. High notes were effortful, but by dint of her experience and unwavering professionalism she made it to the end, but it was a close call. She had sustained an injury to her wrist during rehearsals which might have compromised her performance – let’s hope that she finds her form for subsequent outings.

Similarly, Karita Mattila whose Kostelnička at this address a few years ago remains indelibly etched on my mind, was here miscast as Klytämnestra. Mattila still possesses one of the most thrilling soprano voices, but this role calls for a dramatic mezzo, complete with a fearsome chest voice – facets not part of this superb Finnish soprano’s vocal armoury. It goes without saying that she was dramatically alert to the character’s every twist and turn, and looked resplendent in her blue gown, but just couldn’t muster the required low notes to cut through the orchestral textures.

“…expectations were high on the first night, maybe too high”

Elektra

Karita Mattila & Nina Stemme (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Making her belated house debut, and delivering the one genuine standout vocal performance of the evening, American soprano Sara Jakubiak was a thrilling, full-voiced Chrysothemis. Her creamy timbre, allied to a fearsome, free, top, allowed her to fill out Strauss’ lofty vocal lines with apparent ease and fulsome tone. This was a highly accomplished debut – one of the finest in recent seasons – with Jacubiak delivering some of the most superlative Strauss singing we’ve heard. 

Completing the cast, Łukasz Goliński was a warm-voiced Orest, replete with noble phrasing, even if his baritone was a whisker too light for the House, while Charles Workman made the most of his brief appearance as Ägisth. Maids and Servants were cast from strength – with tenor Michael Gibson in particular standing out.

Loy told the story clearly, but shed no new light on the opera. With his regular collaborators Johannes Leiacker (designs) and Olaf Winter (lighting), together they presented a very traditional view of the work – the interior of a house, visible through large picture windows, and a staircase leading from the door down to an unkept area where Elektra and the maids resided framed the action. From the costumes, and photographs in the programme, we were in turn of the century Vienna at the time of Freud. That’s all well and good, but Loy never really hinted at a Freudian interpretation of the work which was a shame. Still, this uncluttered approach never distracted from the music, which fortunately was in safe hands.

Pappano managed to wring every drop of emotion from this fascinating score, highlighting its neuroses, teasing out orchestral detail and playing the climaxes for all they were worth. He was rewarded with fabulous orchestral playing that was at turns plaintive and exhilarating. So, a mixed evening then. This new staging is worth catching to hear Strauss’ opera played so magnificently – it’s just to be hoped Stemme manages to overcome the vocal problems that beset her on the first night.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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