Posts Tagged ‘Elektra’

The House of Atreus, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, March 2011

1 April, 2011

Imagine a Greek theatre director adapting three of Shakespeare’s history plays into a single evening’s show. And imagine he did it by inserting new words and ideas into the original. How would you feel?

It’s not an idle question, because that’s exactly what Richard Twyman and Paul O’Mahoney have done with three Greek plays: Iphigeneia at AulisAgamemnon, and Elektra. The second is by Aeschylus, the other two by Euripides. The programme also credits Sophocles with the third one, but in fact this performance is based on Euripides in which Elektra lives with a farmer, rather than in the palace as she does in the Sophocles version.

Olivia Ross and Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Klytemnestra and Agamemnon, photo by Clive Barda

It’s worth noting that when these plays were written the stories they tell were already part of ancient myth. The Trojan War was hundreds of years in the past, and although this production is in modern costume, which is fine, it’s not so acceptable to insert a lot of modern vernacular in the context of ancient ideas about human sacrifice and honouring the gods. Such distortion of the original is a dangerous game, and I wonder what the point is. Certainly the whole thing was defiantly modern to the extent that in the last play, Agamemnon’s name was scrawled on a wall opposite Elektra’s hut, and written in modern Greek, rather than ancient Greek — what was the point of that?

In the first play there were boxes labelled hellfire missiles, which is fine in a modern context, but this gutted version of the play made Agamemnon — nobly portrayed by Ben Lloyd-Hughes — appear too weak and indecisive, as it omitted the huge build-up of tension while the army stayed becalmed and frustrated in port. When Klytemnestra appears, saying, “If someone could see their way to helping me with our luggage . . .” her words seem odd in the context, and that’s what I mean by inserting modern vernacular. The much repeated phrase, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is a neat aphorism, but more Shakespeare than Euripides.

It was a similar story with the other plays, and the oft repeated, “Count no man happy before he’s dead” is just not right. This originally comes from the reply Solon of Athens gave to King Croesus of Lydia when asked whether he, Croesus wasn’t the happiest man Solon had ever met. The response was, “He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, in my judgment, is entitled to bear the name happy”. Sophocles, in Oedipus the King, used Solon’s reported words to create a brilliant line of lapidary compactness with which to end his play, “And none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness to the grave in peace”. Rather different from the brief line Twyman and O’Mahoney have created.

Despite criticising the adaptation, some of the acting in this student production was very good. I’ve mentioned Agamemnon already, and I liked both Olivia Ross as Klytemnestra and Rachael Deering as Elektra. Laurent de Montalambert came over strongly as Achilles, and Mabel Clements was happily enthusiastic as Iphigeneia, yet strongly determined when she decided to sacrifice herself. The determination suits her name, which means ‘born strong’ in ancient Greek, an epithet applied to Artemis, the goddess who transports her away, replacing her with a deer at the last second.

The direction was very effective at the end when Orestes kills his mother Klytemnestra — it was a nastily convincing murder — but that does not exculpate this bowdlerised combination of three plays. The work of those ancient Greek playwrights has crossed twenty-four centuries or so — a herald of excellence in itself — is that not good enough for us? Why tamper with them?

Elektra, in concert with Valery Gergiev and the LSO, Barbican, January 2010

15 January, 2010

This powerful Richard Strauss opera, scored for an orchestra of over 110 instruments, has a huge dynamic range and needs singers who can rise above the orchestra. This is where Angela Denoke as Chrysothemis did wonderfully well, and I very much look forward to her singing Salome at the Royal Opera in July. Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra showed just the right mix of uncertainty and determination in her portrayal, and the voices of the three main protagonists — Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Klytemnestra — were very well contrasted. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra showed herself fierce and anguished, but was clearly out-sung by Angela Denoke. For example, towards the end, after Klytemnestra has been murdered and her lover Aegisthus cries out for help, Elektra sings, “Agamemnon hört dich!” (Agamemnon hears you!), but it was weak, and as he is dragged away, Chrysothemis comes in with “Elektra! Schwester! .. .” The contrast could not have been greater — Ms. Charbonnet was no match for the orchestra, but Ms. Denoke rose effortlessly above it. Matthias Goerne sang Orestes, keeping up well with Ms. Charbonnet in their duet, and Ian Storey sang Aegisthus.

But what really made this a terrific evening was the conducting by Gergiev. He gave us wonderfully melodious quiet passages, yet turned on the power when it was needed. The London Symphony Orchestra respond well to his enigmatic hand gestures, and the orchestral playing was beautifully lyrical. The name Elektra means ‘shining’ — as in the alloy electrum — and Gergiev with the LSO gave us a shining performance.

Cassandra by Vittorio Gnecchi, and Elektra by Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

15 February, 2009

Cassandra, by the Italian composer Gnecchi, was written four years before Stauss’s Elektra. It tells of Agamemnon’s return to his wife Klytemnestra, who intends to kill him as revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia at the start of his voyage to Troy, and of course to preserve her relationship with Aegisthus. Agamemnon brings Cassandra with him from Troy, and she prophesies death. He believes her, but his wife whisks him away and the deed is done. The opera ends with the death of Agamemnon, though Cassandra will die later because that is her fate when someone finally believes her prophecies. The main role was for Klytemnestra, brilliantly sung by Susan Anthony, and her lover Aegisthus was well sung by Piero Terranova. Cassandra herself was very well portrayed by Nora Gubisch, but she only appears late in this fifty-minute opera. Agamemnon was Gustavo Porta. The late Romantic music was melodic, but tended to be at fever pitch without much of a let-up — it needed more light and shade.

Elektra had a very strong cast of female singers: Janice Baird as Elektra, Hanna Schwarz as Klytemnestra, and Manuela Uhl as Chrysothemis. Both the latter two, who were in Salome three days earlier as Herodias and Salome respectively, sang their roles in this opera particularly strongly. The small part of Aegisthus was well sung by Burkhard Ulrich, and Orestes was ineffectually portrayed by Egils Silins.

The director for both operas was Kirsten Harms, with scenery and costumes by Bernd Damovsky. In both operas the sets were very plain, having high walls with no top in sight, and the women’s costumes were modern and plain, mainly black dresses. Agamemnon in Cassandra, and Orestes after the murder in Elektra, were both covered in pinkish/red paint from top to waist, and looked like simple butchers.

The conductor was Kazushi Ono, but in Elektra, which I have heard many times before, the orchestra seemed out of control on the loud passages, with the brass too harsh. He certainly brought the quiet passages under control, almost as if in a chamber opera, but I found myself unmoved by the effect.