Given the usual fare provided by West Australian Opera – almost entirely limited to the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the occasional nod to bel canto – the fact that Elektra sold out over a three night run must surely convey a message to someone there. True, it was embedded in the Perth International Arts Festival which attracts a wider audience, and it featured a soprano of international renown in the title role, but it is hard to escape the feeling that local opera goers might just be thirsting for what has become the unusual, albeit most metropolitan centres feature Strauss operas as repertory regulars. And, make no mistake, this is a superlative production in every respect, but it was sold out before anyone saw it.
Elektra is not an opera that needs a showy set or smart effects, given the relatively straightforward narrative, and the variety of mood and colour in the music. This setting however – a collaboration between WA Opera, ThinIce (a Perth production company), PIAF and Opera Australia – without being over-elaborate is a stunner. It chillingly creates the ambience of violence, unease and emotional tension within which the story occurs. The set consists of grey walls with a narrow flight of steps inset at the back, with a minimal amount of props, basically a few chairs and a very ordinary-looking axe (a double-headed ritual Mycenaean Bronze Age replica would have been nice). Lighting, courtesy of Paul Jackson, was especially effective. An interesting effect was the presence on stage of a silent strapping and bald male figure, presumed to be the ghost of Agamemnon. At the finale, sprinklers opened up in the back wall and sprayed black water over this figure, such that it pooled around him at the centre of the stage, and into which he sank and disappeared, a great coup de théâtre.
Costume was also fitting but minimalist, Elektra being particularly drab. Klytämnestra, on the other hand, was clad in a glamorous white trouser suit with an array of bling; she was as bald as her late husband. After her sinister entrance with some young slave girls, one of them was tied to a chair and crudely scalped by Klytämnestra. Subsequently she donned the grisly spoils as a wig for a short time, and after its removal, appeared with a smear of blood across her pate.
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Richard Mills, played in an expanded pit to house the necessary large number of players. Their playing was a dream of nuance and detail, and at times one wished the singing could hold off for a bit longer, the better to experience it.
What really rammed home the story was the committed acting and excellent singing of the whole cast, with no evident weak links. Director Matthew Lutton is to be congratulated in drawing out a high level of intensity from the artists. We were fortunate to have in the title role Eva Johansson, something of an Electra du jour in Europe. Her intimate knowledge of the role was evident in the nuance and physical as well as vocal fluency with which she inhabited the role. Her singing was quite staggering, her voice a huge gleaming instrument; she sang with surprisingly straight tone, with vibrato used for ornamentation like a baroque singer. The sound and emotional content of “Allein!” was overwhelming. Irish soprano Orla Boylan as Chrysothemis was almost as compelling; her voice is somewhat lighter yet interestingly of heavier vibrato, but also with appealing silvery tone. Klytämnestra was convincingly portrayed as a demented ageing socialite by mezzo Elizabeth Campbell, an equally compelling and powerful singer, as previously seen in her assumptions of Fricka in both Adelaide Rings.
The male roles offer less scope, but were nonetheless ably filled. Australian-born international bass Daniel Sumegi was a commanding Orest, with a fine resonating vocal presence. Richard Greager as Aegisth, and James Clayton as Orest’s tutor showed the depth of casting here. Similarly, such fine Australian singers as Merlyn Quaife (Overseer) and Fiona Campbell (Third Maid) demonstrated luxurious casting throughout.
For the rest of the year, WA operagoers will be fed Les pêcheurs de perles, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Madama Butterfly. It is to be hoped that the popular as well as critical success of Elektra will lead to more adventurous programming in future years.
Photographs © James Rogers