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Opera Review: Elektra
Dress rehearsal of the opera Elektra.

This was one of the least enjoyable nights I've ever had at the opera - for all the right reasons.

Composer Richard Strauss' and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's compact, visceral, terrifying revenge opera Elektra, based on Sophocles' tragedy of the same name and first performed before a stunned Dresden audience in 1909, is not an opera to be enjoyed.

Nor is it, as Monty Python might have said, an opera for laying down and avoiding.

It is an opera to be faced square-on, as one might face death or a tax bill.

Except that, unlike those dark non-negotiables, the rewards at the end are immense.

Not that Strauss' masterful score doesn't sometimes exhibit the lushness and soaring melodic beauty of his Four Last Songs - for example, Elektra's gorgeous Es ruhrt sich niemand following her reunion with her brother, Orest.

But essentially, for about 100 minutes one is subjected to a kind of aestheticised cruelty as the traditional diatonic musical material is thrown into an expressionist dungeon and tortured to within an inch of its life.

Elektra's obsessive love for her slain father King Agamemnon, her all-consuming thirst for retribution and her dancing herself to death following Orest's killing of Agamemnon's murderer and Elektra's mother, Queen Klytamnestra, provide rich psycho-sexual pickings.

Hofmannsthal and Strauss knew this. Conductor Richard Mills, director Matthew Lutton, designer Zoe Atkinson and lighting designer Paul Jackson, who together formed the creative team behind this superb new production of Elektra, of which this was the world premiere, definitely know this.

A co-production between WA Opera, Opera Australia, ThinIce and PIAF, this is an Elektra whose world is the projection of a diseased mind. I'm talking about Elektra's of course - though some in the audience might have had other ideas.

All is, at first, darkness made visible. James Berlyn's Agamemnon unzips his white skin like a banana peel to reveal the black, monolithic figure - whose descendants include the ghost of Hamlet's father and the statue of the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni - which will silently dominate the entire opera as it dominates Elektra's consciousness.

The similarly black, monolithic palace wall with a single, long staircase to one side forms the simple backdrop against which the action takes place, the changes in mood wrought by the music and by Jackson's skilful lighting effects.

Performances were impeccable throughout, with a tour-de-force of tremendous emotional weight and subtlety from one of today's greatest Elektras, the Danish soprano Eva Johansson, a conflicted, sympathetic Chrysothemis from Orla Boylan, a horrifying Klytamnestra from Elizabeth Campbell and a stolid Orest from the rich-toned bass-baritone, Daniel Sumegi.

Other stand-outs on this occasion included Richard Greager as Aegisth, James Clayton as Orest's tutor and Merlyn Quaife as the overseer. Mills' detailed conception of the complex score was fully and beautifully elucidated by the WA Symphony Orchestra in some of its finest playing to date.

As Elektra, her deadly mission fulfilled, slowly begins her dance of death, streams of water melt away her black world; as she sinks to the ground lifeless, Agamemnon sinks into a vast, black pool while a refulgent major chord from the orchestra resolves all strife.

The effect is astonishing; it is primal, it is climax, it is catharsis. It is art.

Performances were impeccable throughout, with a tour-de-force of tremendous emotional weight and subtlety from one of today's greatest Elektras, the Danish soprano Eva Johansson . . . <div class="endnote">

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