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Strauss Elektra
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 4 April 2003

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov

Production and set designs: Charles Edwards
Costume designs: Brigitte Reiffenstuel

Elektra: Lisa Gasteen
Chrysothemis: Anne Schwanewilms
Klytemnestra: Felicity Palmer
Orestes: John Tomlinson

Maids: Frances McCafferty, Ekaterina Gubanova, Gillian Knight, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Rebecca Nash
The Overseer: Christine Bunning Aegisthus: Siegfried Jerusalem Orestes's Tutor: Darren Jeffery
Young Servant: Alasdair Elliott Old Servant: Jonathan May

This new production for The Royal Opera is by a new director there, Charles Edwards, with an Elektra making her debut in the role and a substitute conductor replacing Christoph von Dohnányi.

Lisa Gasteen was unexpectedly kempt after the build-up to her appearance by the excellent group of servants, well characterised and even individualised, their words (helpfully sur-titled in English) coming up to the amphitheatre clear and true above Semyon Bychkov's considerate conducting.Gasteen was generally adequate, and improved after a start with some vocal difficulty, a gear change for some of the high notes which were uncomfortable for her and for us, sustaining her (vocally) killing role well. Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra emoted guilty longing for respite from her dreams which could only come with death. Anne Schwanewilms was impressive and brought the only charm into the evening as Chrysothemis, Elektra's sensible sister and reluctant accomplice who just wants to get on with her life. John Tomlinson was magnificent as Orestes, I don't remember another to compare.

Ideal seating, with sur-titles at eye level and the orchestra, in its pit, laid out below us in full view, contributed to make the score sound as well as ever experienced before - though 'now' is bound to take primacy over 'then'. Bychkov instilled confidence, with tone quality and balance which made the Covent Garden Orchestra sound like the living embodiment of Richard Strauss's vision, not infrequently drawing attention from the singers, especially in some of the descriptive passages reflecting the near psychotic mental states on stage.

Charles Edwards' sets, and indeed the whole stage picture, impressed less. The action centred around a revolving door, which was finally left isolated all on its own, presumably to suggest the unending ritual of revenge and counter revenge which was the way of Greek myth and is of today's world.

Whilst the sound of this Covent Garden Elektra, and especially of its orchestral dressing, reverberated overnight and will remain a precious memory, for overall satisfaction we think back gratefully to Herbert Wernicke's inspired, red-drenched staging at Munich, the commanding intensity of Gabriele Schnaut as Elektra and the tortured performance of Jane Henschel, as a grotesque and grimacing Klytämnestra.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Lisa Gasteen (Elektra) with Felicity Palmer (Klytemnestra)
Anne Schwanewilms as ChrysothemiS


(For other photos of this Charles Edwards production, see Marc Bridle's full report on Seen&Heard)

Revival of Charles Edwards production, 2008:

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London November 2008

Conductor: Mark Elder
Production and set designs: Charles Edwards
Costume designs: Brigitte Reiffenstuel

Elektra: Susan Bullock
Chrysothemis: Anne Schwanewilms
Klytemnestra: Jane Henschel
Orestes: Johan Reuter

Five years or so on, with the set looking a little shabbier, and Charles Edwards’ direction equally static, but this opera always presents a challenge for its audience. It’s Strauss’s mastery of music that weaves the three central women, each with their own personal neurosis, into a credible plot, and ROH have assembled a cast with considerable experience in this opera.

Susan Bullock has sung the title role to wide acclaim, but London audiences have had a long wait to see her interpretation. It’s the strength of her voice and her complete control that is fundamental to the portrayal, allowing her to take risks with her colouring as she summons up for us a woman who has been stretched to her very limits.

Jane Henschel has come as close to making Klytemnestra her unquestioned territory, her full earthy voice and larger than life stage presence conjuring up a vision of terrifying dementia.

Beside these two, Chrysothemis appears deceptively normal, with Anne Schwanewilms’ silvery tones emphasising her calm and vulnerability. Ms Schwanewilms is close to be my ideal Strauss soprano, as ably demonstrated in her glorious anthology of his songs on the Hyperion label www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/cddvd/hyperionstrauss2.html CDA 67588.

A revival of musical stature.

Serena Fenwick

Susan Bullock (Elektra, 2008 revival) PHOTO: CLIVE BARDA

Elektra, Aida & Freichutz; Munich Opera, May 2000 (AW)
- - Rarely have we been held so spellbound. We listened and watched, on the edge of our seats, totally hooked by Herbert Wernicke's staging of Elektra, for some two hours without interval. This tragedy of guilt and revenge unfolded itself against visually powerful, apt yet uncomplicated sets, a perfect foil and counterpoint to the painful, tangled and complex emotional webs uniting the characters. Against an aura of stillness created by the sets and brilliant lighting effects the music could assume life under the expert musical direction of Peter Schneider, the deceptively simple but highly sophisticated settings helping to focus attention on every note, every movement of the singers. This utterly modern looking, and sounding, music drama was presented with meaningful and thoughtful artistry and a very high standard of singing all round.

This production achieved a unity of high intensity between the musical and the visual aspects of the drama. It released the emotions and the psychological depths inherent in the story of Elektra, seizing our attention and ensuring our involvement from the very first moments. A gigantic black wall, nearly full stage height and width, just slightly tilted, closed off most of the stage and brought the action up-front close to the audience.From underneath this oppressive wall the chorus of women just managed to crawl out. Elektra sang sprawled and facing us on a forward tilting platform and the women conveyed a picture of abject exclusion and doom, singing crouched on all fours.

An enormous, heavy red cloak makes its round, like an emblem of the fearful inheritance of guilt assumed and revenge taken up and passed on. A grotesque and grimacing Klytämnestra, in a tortured performance by Jane Henschel, appears at first trailing this cumbersome and weighty object behind her, every now and then kicking it out of the way with brusque, animal like stabbing movements, as if to rid herselfof something unpleasant. She divests herself of this cloak and throws it over her daughter Elektra, who wraps herself in it, as if to enfold herself with the need for revenge which she totally accepts and assumes that the Gods have assigned to her. She, in turn, passes this fateful legacy on to Orestes, her brother (sung by Monte Pederson with great conviction) who proudly assumes the mantle of responsibility to fulfil destiny. Particularly noteworthy was Gabriele Schnaut in the fearfully demanding and commanding part as Strauss's eponymous heroine, Elektra
.(Alexa Woolf in Seen&Heard, May 2000)

Gabriele Schnaut as Elektra




© Peter Grahame Woolf