A jagged, expressionist portrait and a breathless, obsessive thriller
No other opera by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is as raw, savage and single-minded in its relentlessness than "Elektra." And no other calls for such gigantic vocal and instrumental forces. So complex and dissonant is the score that after one early performance, it was jokingly said that half the orchestra had played the score of "Salome" while the other half had played "Elektra," with no one noticing anything wrong! With its expressionist sonorities, "Elektra" does full justice to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto.
Focusing entirely on Electra, the daughter of King Agamemnon, Hofmannsthal and Strauss set the action in a palace courtyard in Mycenae. Electra's overriding obsession is to avenge the death of her father, who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Electra awaits the return of her brother Orestes to put the plan into action. Chrysothemis, her sister, wants to have nothing to do with it. When Orestes returns and slays Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Electra, delirious with joy, abandons herself to an ecstatic dance that ends with her death.
While the potential for over-the-top imagery looms large in any stage production of "Elektra," director Martin Kušej has opted for a more direct, accessible and contemporary interpretation of the work and its heroine. The "palace courtyard" is a Kafkaesque corridor lined with padded doors that let in blinding light when opened – a prison, a madhouse and, sometimes, a whorehouse. By adding a silent chorus of actors depicting dissolute palace dwellers or axe-wielding conspirators, Kušej raises Electra's individual acts to the level of a collective deed.
The work demands actor-singers with charisma, and in its trio of female protagonists, this production is unbeatable. Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and baggy pants, celebrated Wagner heroine Eva Johansson plays Electra as a punk and outlaw with a mighty voice and a mightier appetite for revenge. The great Marjana Lipovšek portrays Clytemnestra as a grandiose, regal wreck whose maniacal laugh curdles the blood. Opposite these two intensely dramatic figures, Melanie Diener's Chrysothemis adds a contrasting warmth and refreshing femininity. Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi forges an orchestral backdrop of steely, metallic hardness that alternates with the beguiling lyricism of Chrysothemis's music and of the Elektra/Orestes duet – a Mozartian clarity that gives this iridescent score a darkly irresistible glow and transforms it into "a breathless thriller" (Die Welt).