Opera review: Elektra at the State Opera

Just a few performances are left before the State Opera closes for renovations

The State Opera will be closing for a much-needed two-year renovation, and the final premiere before it goes dark was Elektra, a one-act opera by Richard Strauss.

In 2014, the State Opera presented Salome, another of Strauss' more controversial works. Fellow composer Giacomo Puccini in 1909 said, “Salome is still tolerable, but Elektra is just too much!”

For its time, Elektra's score was quite modern, with dissonance and parallel harmonies. Strauss heeded the criticism, as his future works were not so extreme. But that also makes Elektra a landmark in his career.

Strauss' version of Elektra is also one of the most frequently staged operas based on Greek mythology.

The current production at the State Opera has only five performances, with just two left on June 22 and 25.

The lead role is being sung by British soprano Susan Bullock, who has been specializing in 20th century German opera. She has performed the role of Elektra, in different productions, at La Scala and the Met. She earned the Royal Philharmonic Society's award for best singer in 2009 for Elektra in a production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 2014 she was named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).

She heads up an international cast with Rosalind Plowright as Clytemnestra, Anna Gabler as Chrysothemis, Richard Berkeley-Steele as Aigistha and Miguelangelo Cavalcanti as Orestes.

The State Opera's current production of the one-act play starts with the curtain already up as the audience slowly files in for their seats. On stage, people in street clothes are milling about the interior of a museum that has an exhibition of Greek artifacts, including the so-called Mask of Agamemnon and several weapons. Video screens are showing a film related to Elektra and Agamemnon.

The guards lock up the museum, but one patron has remained in hiding and comes out to watch the video once everything is locked up.

The patron is indeed Elektra, and the opera takes a for the time modern psychological approach to her story. Further characters begin to appear in the museum, including the deceased Agamemnon.

The story is no fairy tale. There is a convoluted revenge plot, and those ancient weapons in glass cases are pressed into use. There is also an extremely gruesome execution, at least for an opera.

The one-act play goes from start to finish without a break. Indeed, there is not even a single pause for applause after any of the more difficult passages.

Strauss' opera has been described as a symphony with words, though Strauss himself disagreed with that assessment and hoped people in the future would think differently.

The opera was directed by British director Keith Warner, who is known for his stagings of Wagner's operas. He has directed over 150 operas in 20 countries and has also written librettos for three operas by David Blake.

He explained some of the idea behind the concept. “The story is set in a contemporary museum of ancient history in which a young girl is acquainted with the life of the mythical Elektra. The tragedy of Agamemnon’s daughter raises gradually long-suppressed memories and demons in her. … The audience becomes a witness to a personal and sincere attempt at self-knowledge, initiated by a very strong, albeit fictional sequence of events. The key question for us was whether we can face the truth if we decide not to hide from lies,” Warner s said in a press release.

The cleverest part of the production, and what keeps the action moving without a pause, is the set by Slovak stage designer Boris Kudlička, who also worked on the State Opera's production of Strauss' Salome.

The set for Elektra is a rather convincing marbled interior of a museum. As the action goes on, though, sections of the wall are pulled out to reveal other types of rooms such as a bedroom and a kitchen where key events take place. Just as quickly they are rolled away again.

“The reason we set the story in the place of the contemporary minimalist museum is that it is full of the various historical artifacts that may serve very well as mechanisms enabling introspection,“ set designer Boris Kudlička said.

So much work went into the set that it seems a pity it will only be used five times.

If you haven't been to the State Opera, you should take the chance to see some of the remaining performances as the next chance to go there will be more than two years away.

For more information and tickets please visit www.narodni-divadlo.cz

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