Behind Closed Doors: Elektra at the Kongelige Teater

Strauss – Elektra

Klytämnestra – Violeta Urmana
Elektra – Lise Lindstrom
Chrysothemis – Elisabet Strid
Aegisth – Gert Henning-Jensen
Orest – Johan Reuter
Der Pfleger des Orest – Morten Staugaard
Die Aufseherin – Hedvig Haugerud
1. Magd – Frida Lund-Larsen
2. Magd – Elisabeth Jansson
3. Magd – Hanne Fischer
4. Magd – Melissa Baug
Magd – Louise McClelland Jacobsen
Die Vertraute – Tessa Kiilsholm

Die Schleppträgerin – Signe Sneh Durholm
Ein junger Diener –
Fredrik Bjellsäter
Ein alter Diener – Morten Frank Larsen

Det Kongelige Operakor, Det Kongelige Kapel / Thomas Søndergård.
Stage director – Dmitri Tcherniakov.

Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Sunday, April 16th, 2023.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Elektra was premiered at the Staatsoper Hamburg in November 2021.  The performances in his run mark the Danish premiere of this production, here revived by Thorsten Cölle.  Indeed, the first performance of this run was the thirty-third performance of the work at the Royal Theatre.  The house has assembled an international cast for the central mother and daughter trio, with house regulars in the remaining roles, all under the musical direction of Thomas Søndergård.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Tcherniakov sets the action in what appears to be a bourgeois apartment setting in the modern day.  Both Elektra and Klytämnestra are obsessed and dysfunctional – the daughter completely obsessed with an apparent murder of her father, the mother drugged and unable to sleep.  Yet I was left questioning whether Elektra was mourning an actual person, or whether she instead was full of delirium from the start.  Seeing the opening scene with the maids discussing around the table with Klytämnestra, with even the fifth maid joining in taunting Elektra, suggested that her suffering was actually self-inflicted and the result of delirium.  An impression that was enhanced by Elektra singing her big opening set piece as a gruesome ritual, assembling a mannequin, sitting him at the table, smearing herself with blood, and negotiating the approach to her first high C by lighting sparklers on said mannequin’s hat. 

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

This idea of not knowing what was real or what was imagined made Tcherniakov’s staging very much a psychological thriller.  Particularly so as he gives us a big twist towards the end – no spoilers.  And yet, frequently it felt that having to put the pieces of the puzzle together, trying to understand the significance of the bourgeois setting, or the reality (or not) of Elektra’s delirium, meant that far too often, one was questioning the drama so much that it meant that this remarkable score took second place.  That rather than the stage pictures and narrative amplifying the music, it felt, at times, as if they undermined it.  This isn’t to say that the staging doesn’t allow for character development.  The way that Violeta Urmana’s Klytämnestra obsessively added sugar to her tea, a woman driven to the edge by neurosis vividly brought to life, was just one example of the sheer depth of characterization on display.  Still, Tcherniakov does raise some interesting ideas around how far we would go for revenge, or how much does our single-mindedness blind us to reality.  It is, without doubt, a thoughtful piece of theatre.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Musically, there was so much that gave pleasure today.  I’ve been saying for years, to anyone who would listen, that this house has one of the greatest opera orchestras around.  Their performance today most definitely confirmed that impression.  The last time I saw them play under Søndergård was a terrifically idiomatic Viaggio a Reims back in 2017.  This Elektra was equally well played and similarly idiomatic.  Attack was as sharp as the axe that killed Agamemnon.  At the same time, there was no shortage of soaring lyricism in those huge surging strings in Chrysothemis’ ode to childbirth, or nervous tenderness in the burgeoning lyricism as Elektra reflects on her youthful looks.  Søndergård elicited playing of staggering accuracy, both in tuning and in rhythm, from his orchestra and they responded to him as one.  The sheer amplitude of the sound they produced was massive, yet Søndergård always allowed his singers through.  There were a few moments I found less that convincing: Søndergård opened up the traditional cuts and it felt that tension sagged as a result, particularly in ‘was bluten muss?’.  The response of the maids to Klytämnestra’s murder was piped in from offstage and was barely audible from my seat in the middle of the parkett, as indeed was the offstage chorus.  I also found Søndergård’s tempo for Elektra and Orest’s initial conversation rather slow, although it did allow the orchestra to display the sheer depth of colour available to the brass.  This was unquestionably exceptional orchestral playing.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

My previous encounter with Lise Lindstrom in the title role was at the Opéra de Montréal in November 2015.  It was striking to see how much Lindstrom has grown in the role in the intervening years.  With the passage of time, gravity has meant that the voice doesn’t quite sit as high as it did – the highest reaches were today rather flat.  Yet, where Lindstrom has grown is in her use of text.  Here she really used the words to drive the tone forward, relishing in the language to colour the tone.  Her German sounds much more authentic now, apart from a very few stray Californian ‘R’s in places.  Yes, the vibrations have widened, but with that has Lindstrom’s ability to incarnate the role and give all she has to it, shooting focused bursts of sound into the auditorium, while also not being afraid to pull back and show us Elektra’s fragility and vulnerability, using just a thread of tone.  A notable assumption of this Everest of the soprano repertoire.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Urmana’s Klytämnestra was positively Shakespearean in her use of text.  Her assumption was utterly magnetic, dominating the stage through her unsparing physicality and text-based vocalism.  Urmana was fearless in exploiting a rich chestiness, while also using the beauty of her liquid middle voice to give her Klytämnestra humanity in the darkness.  There was so much detail in the way she coloured the words with the voice, always staying true to Strauss’ dynamics, while throwing herself fully into the role.  In moving into the next phase of her career, and in taking on this iconic role, Urmana has established herself as a riveting exponent of it.  I can’t wait to see how she will grow even further into the role.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Elisabet Strid gave us a creamy-voiced Chrysothemis, giving so generously of herself in those long, soaring lines.  It did sound to my ears that the voice doesn’t quite optimally spin at the very top, but this is one of the latter performances of quite a long run.  The voice is a good size and Strid is undoubtedly a name to watch in this repertoire.  Johan Reuter sang an Orest carved from granite, firm of tone and even throughout the range.  He was an implacable stage presence, using the tone to match the darkness of the brass below.  Gert Henning-Jensen sang Ägisth in a focused yet robust tenor, beefy enough to be heard over the murderous brass, yet lyrical enough to turn the corners.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

The remaining roles reflected the excellent quality one has come to expect at this address.  That said, the tuning from some of the maids was rather erratic, and did lead me to wonder whether they could all hear the orchestra.  A special mention for Fredrik Bjellsäter’s attractive tenor as the junger Diener, and Frida Lund-Larsen’s warm and resonant contralto as the 1. Magd.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Today’s Elektra was a gripping afternoon in the theatre, in an intelligent staging that brought a new and stimulating perspective to the work.  And yet it did feel the intellectual effort required to mentally process Tcherniakov’s staging did come to the detriment of surrendering oneself to this thrilling score.  Today’s performance was superbly sung across the board, conducted and played with visionary precision and virtuosity by Søndergård and his magnificent orchestra.  There are only a handful of performances left.  If you can get to Copenhagen, run for a ticket.  While you’re there, do try the theatre’s special cocktail for the production, ‘Thirst for Revenge’.  The capacity audience rewarded the entire cast with a generous ovation. 

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