It is well over five minutes before the title character, present on stage throughout Richard Strauss’s 110-minute opera, sings a note. As Elektra, American soprano Christine Goerke sits at a desk swigging schnapps (or is it ouzo?) in a room lit expressionistically in stark light, with huge shadows thrown on the bare concrete wall behind her. At the back of the stage, a black revolving door, in art nouveau style, presents a portal into the inner palace and a hidden world of mayhem (where the horror happens in Greek mythology).
Strauss’s monumental one-act tragedy, premiered in 1909, was his follow up to ‘Salomé’. Similarly modernistic while retaining romantic tonal colour, it calls for an enormous orchestra (here, the six-strong percussion team spills over into the stage-left box). The story (by Sophocles, adapted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal) tells of a somewhat dysfunctional family. It begins with Elektra, deranged by grief and dressed in mourning black, quietly watching the palace maid servants scrubbing her father’s blood from the stone floor – the traces of a murder by which Aegisth (John Danzak) usurped her father’s crown and bed, leaving her to brood, worship his bust and yearn for the return of her missing brother, Oreste, to put things right.
Goerke is impressive, maintaining her vocal presence over the competing music for the duration – her voice dark and fruity, solid throughout its range. She is matched by a similarly splendid turn from Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis – Elektra’s thinner, more humane and glamorous sister. Her focused voice rising into the stratosphere when required and like Goerke, also riding the massive orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster, who is German, as her clear diction reflects, sings Elektra’s detestable, superstitious mother Klytæmnestra, while her nemesis arrives in the form of bass-baritone Iain Patterson, who makes a strong presence as Oreste, looking young, strong and steely enough to enact this awful vengeance, including matricide.
The sets and lighting design come courtesy of the opera’s director Charles Edwards, overseeing the second revival of his production. His large brutal concrete set, which might have benefitted by being more intimate to increase the intensity, hosts the interactions between the characters. His updates in direction, meanwhile, are distracting – the blood spattered, slain Fifth Servant (Jennifer Check) permanently onstage and crawling around at climactic moments; and Klytæmnestra appears to be on speed, giving a somewhat comic turn rather than a disturbingly paranoid one.
Ably steering the musical juggernaut is Andris Nelsons. The Latvian maestro energetically wrests some magnificent playing from the ROH orchestra, encouraging the soaring strings and roaring brass, while still alive to the intricate orchestration – the baying of hounds and other effects, such as the disquieting sounds he draws from Strauss’s experiments with the low brass and winds. Jonathan Lennie