Irish National Opera Elektra
With my critical faculties prepared not to become over-excited at the thought of seeing a full-size opera for the first time in what seems like an eternity, it is always fair to write that the Irish National Opera’s staging of the opera in one act by Richard Strauss from 1908 Elektra for the Kilkenny Arts Festival is an achievement of breathtaking magnificence.
With five performances scheduled, opening night was the most unfairly swept up. When Met Éireann extended an orange weather warning that covered performance time, the company made the responsible decision to cancel.
And then it didn’t rain.
The second performance, however, was generously sprinkled. The singers must have been extremely disturbed, but that certainly wasn’t the case the night I attended.
Director Conall Morrison has sometimes gone the extra mile in the past in terms of allegory, but this production allows the enormous strength of Strauss’s rising, considerably demanding and complex score to speak for itself.
With the demands of the pandemic and the now indisputable threat of climate change hanging over outdoor production, the 80-piece orchestra (under Fergus Shiel, conductor) has been pre-recorded at the Bord Gáis Energy Theater, as well as the choir.
It could have left the soloists dry. But in front of us in the beautiful courtyard of Kilkenny Castle, they coordinated against a screenshot of Shiel, sometimes with a video projection of the orchestra incorporated into the performance – a reminder, if needed, of the immensity of the music.
Elektra has always oscillated between monster and anti-hero: a woman overflowing with hatred for the mother who had murdered her father King Agamemnon to facilitate his illicit passion for the vile Aegisth.
Thrown, almost literally, to the dogs, Elektra awaits revenge. But she believes that she will be delivered by the gods when her younger brother Orest, banished by their mother Klytamnestre, returns to take her bloody revenge.
Soprano Giselle Allen delivered the complexity both vocally and theatrically in the title role, her tone audibly changing as she shifted from spitting hatred to growing relief and love at Orestes’ heroically determined return, and in a pleading, almost thrilling note as she lured the treacherous Aegisth into the bedroom where he will share his mother’s slaughtered fate.
This was Allen’s first time assuming the demands of the role, and it will be a more than proud addition to his repertoire.
Klytamnestre’s first appearance (an entrance on a platform pulled by slaves) is grotesquely performed by mezzo Imelda Drumm, a sleeping witch full of triumphant fury.
Drumm and Morrison make her an awkward, if not comical, contrast to the almost ethereal purity of Máire Flavin as Chrysothemis, Elektra’s younger sister who is afraid to match her sister’s uniqueness.
The last major role, Orest, is sung by bass-baritone Tómas Tómasson, whose gloriously moving voice in a duet with Allen more than makes up for a slightly woody demeanor.
It would be hard to find a more dazzling and varied combination of roles than what Strauss achieved in the presentation of the four lead roles – each a challenge and a triumph, almost beyond perfection.
There is no shortage of minor roles either, and the production is well served by tenor Peter Marsh as Aegisth, and a handful of our best vocals with Doreen Curran, Raphaela Mangan, Rachel Croash, Niamh O’Sullivan, Emma Nash, Mairéad Buicke, Andrew Gavin and Brendan Collins were all in the spotlight.
The set is simple and effective, clearly designed by Paul Keogan to bow to the dark buildings of Kilkenny Castle, atmospheric lit to highlight the live action as well as the video inserts – which at the Greek way, are full of indeed bloody reminders of the past. acts of treason. Sound design is by Kevin McGing.
Catherine Fay’s costumes could recall the days of Greek colonels or Nazi stormtroopers; their lack of heavy and precise imagery makes them all the more effective – it is a tragedy of betrayal, lust and brutality forever.
It has not been announced so far that the production has been filmed to be made available to a wider audience, or that there are plans to relaunch it. But INO has an honorable record of service to such a large audience as possible, then we live in hope.