Left – Orla Boylan. Cover – Orla Boylan, Eva Johannson and James Berlyn
There was an atmosphere of excited anticipation at His Majesty’s Theatre last night before one of the grandest events in the Perth International Arts Festival calendar. Patrons and guests flocked to see the opening night of Elektra, presented by the West Australian Opera Company and Thin Ice.
Elektra is a one-act opera by Richard Strauss, to a German-language libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Despite being based on ancient Greek mythology, the opera is highly modernist and expressionist. It is a bloodthirsty horror and is being performed only three times this season.
The plot of Elektra is based upon the famous tragedy by Sophocles. Klytamnestra, helped by her lover Aegisth, murders her husband Agamemnon, but becomes afraid that her crime will be avenged by her children; Elektra, Chrysothemis, and their banished brother Orest. The Queen Klytamnestra, in an attempt to rid herself of the horrific dreams haunting her, mercilessly scalps and sacrifices an innocent victim. Insatiable though, she begs Elektra for a cure for her plagued mind. Elektra tells her that the blood of an impure woman must be shed, that she, Klytamnestra is that woman and that her own son Orest will do the deed. At first afraid by this, when news comes that her son Orest is dead, Klytamnestra is relieved and retreats, laughing maniacally. Elektra, who personifies the passionate lust for vengeance, tries to persuade her timid sister (Chrysothemis) to help her kill Klytaemnestra and Aegisth. Before the plan is carried out, Orest, who had been reported as dead, arrives determined to avenge his father's death and kills Klytamnestra and Aegisth. When the “ghost” of Agamemnon symbolically sinks away into the blackness of Elektra’s psyche, it leaves her with nothing to live for, and in joyful ecstasy she dances herself to death. “A fanatic’s life has no meaning after the object of the obsession has been removed” (dir. Matthew Lutton)
The story is a family drama at its most evil. Spousal murder, matricide, revenge and returning from the (supposed) dead is the stuff that contemporary TV soap operas take their inspiration from.
The incredible musical accompaniment was a credit to conductor Richard Mills and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Elektra requires great stamina from both the singers and the orchestra. The musical composition and direction of this production is more complex and skilled than I could hope to comprehend, but a little research today helped me to understand what I heard and was impressed by last night. The characters in Elektra are famously represented in the music through leitmotifs. Recognisable chords or melodic triads helped build a theme for the characters and assist to invoke the desired emotional response from the audience.
Set and costume designer Zoe Atkinson, together with director Matthew Lutton, describe this as a space where light and life are absent, a nocturnal subconscious prison. The almost barren set was punctuated by a huge staircase and very little else but a few shabby looking rehearsal room and school chairs. My initial curiosity about the incongruous nature of the chairs and the three modern branded water bottles set around the stage was cleared up by Lutton: “the whole production is filtered through Elektra’s eyes and anything or anyone she has no emotional connection with is dealt with perfunctorily and plainly”.
The title role of Elektra was performed by Eva Johansson of Denmark. She embraced the bedraggled, manic and desperate woman physically, vocally and facially. The role of Elektra is one of the most demanding in the dramatic soprano repertoire. During the 100 minute production, she never leaves the stage. It was an admirable delivery by Johansson. Orla Boylan and Elizabeth Campbell were both brilliant as Chrysothemis and Klytamnestra respectively.
Though he didn’t sing a note, I felt that James Berlyn as Agamemnon gave one of the most disciplined performances on stage. Tall and commanding, with a statuesque physique, his movements were subtle and yet overwhelming. By simply changing his palms from downturned to up and raising his chin, he was able to exude a powerful stillness that spoke volumes. His omnipresence reminded us that not a thought passes through Elektra’s head that is not related to avenging his murder. Though it may at times seem ambiguous as to who is controlling who, it’s clear that his movement and interaction with others is a manifestation of Elektra’s imagination. Given the controlled physical performance, I wasn’t surprised to see that Berlyn had a dance background, and was delighted to see that he is the creator of the Proximity festival as part of Fringe world, an experience I am very much looking forward to being a part of next weekend (watch this space for a review).
Full credit goes to everyone involved in bringing this spectacular piece of work to life. On several occasions all the hairs on my arms stood on end, and I do believe I could watch the last 15 minutes of this production over and over and over again.
A Co-Production of West Australian Opera, ThinIce, Perth International Arts Festival and Opera Australia
by Richard Strauss
Conductor Richard Mills AM
Director Matthew Lutton
Venue: His Majesty's Theatre | 825 Hay Street, Perth
Dates: Feb 8, 11 and 14, 2012
Tickets: sold out