Tuesday 30 January 2024

Back with vengeance: Nina Stemme in Richard Strauss' Elektra at Covent Garden

Strauss: Elektra - Nina Stemme, Sara Jakubiak - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)
Strauss: Elektra - Nina Stemme, Sara Jakubiak - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)

Strauss: Elektra; Nina Stemme, Sara Jakubiak, Karita Mattila, Charles Workman, Lukasz Golinski, director: Christof Loy, conductor: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House
Reviewed 26 January 2024

Nina Stemme back on form with a coruscating performance in the title role in a new production that showcases the vividly dramatic performances from the entire cast supported by the orchestra on top form

I have been lucky with my Elektras over the years. My first was Pauline Tinsley in 1979 in Harry Kupfer's production for Welsh National Opera. I saw it on tour in Glasgow, and as far as I can tell this was the last time the work has been fully staged in Scotland (and that performance in Glasgow was the first time it had been staged there since 1910).

Then in 1988, I was lucky enough to catch Gwyneth Jones on terrific form in the very last revival of Rudolf Hartmann's 1953 production at Covent Garden. Hartmann was a director associated with Richard Strauss and he staged the premieres of Friedenstag and Capriccio, and his production seemed to echo the designs of the original Elektra

This was followed in 1990 by Götz Friedrich's production with Eva Marton and Deborah Polaski, since then Susan Bullock in Charles Edwards' 2003 production to name but a few. But it has always been Tinsley and Jones that stayed in the mind. 

Now, I can add another performance to the roster, that of Nina Stemme who returned to Christof Loy's new production at Covent Garden on 26 January 2024 with renewed vigour following a bout of illness. Antonio Pappano conducted, with Sara Jakubiak as Chrystothemis, Karita Mattila as Klytämnestra, Lukasz Golinski as Orest and Charles Workman as Ägisth. Designs were by Johannes Leiacker with lighting by Olaf Winter.

Johannes Leiacker's designs presented us with an internal courtyard for a 19th century palace, severe, forbidding, with stonework discoloured by age, closer to municipal architecture than anything else. The maids had conventional black and white uniforms, but the shortness of the skirts suggested later 20th century and the gowns for Klytämnestra and Chrysothemis hovered between late 1950s and early 1960s. Quite why this period, I am not sure but the combination of forbidding architecture and glamour was telling, emphasising the gap between Elektra and her family without having Elektra wallowing in squalor.

Strauss: Elektra - Karita Mattila, Nina Stemme - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)
Strauss: Elektra - Karita Mattila, Nina Stemme - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)

Christof Loy's production was relatively straight-forward, there was little that could be described as expressionist or modernist about it. This even extended to the ending which was, unusually nowadays, true to the opera's libretto, leaving us concentrating on the characters. And Strauss' characters are so extreme themselves, so expressionist, that Loy's production provided a framework for a powerful ensemble centred on Nina Stemme's coruscating Elektra. The set was multi-level; the palace's piano nobile was higher than the courtyard thus giving us the requisite staircase and a view of the palace's internal corridors. Loy made much use of the levels and there was a large cast of scurrying servants, whilst Klytämnestra's first appearance was shouting out of one of those piano nobile windows.

Apart from couple of wayward high notes, there was no sense at all of Nina Stemme having been out of commission and certainly no feel of holding back. This was a performance that grasped you by the scruff of the neck at the outset and kept you gripped to the end. Stemme's Elektra wasn't the wild, staring-eyed mad woman, she was concentrated and relatively compact, only you realised she was stark, staring mad. Stemme's gestures were often tight, after all she is a mature woman and there was a feeling of her playing Elektra as such, not a young wild thing. Her major moments held a stillness to them, so that movement counted, but she also had a dance element, not just at the end but at other places where Strauss' music seems to bring with it hints of his previous hit, Salome. Stemme was able to hold our attention, musically depicting Elektra's plight whilst never underplaying the fact that she is mentally broken. The recognition scene was powerful rather than touching, and the end, when it came, felt like sort of triumph. As with the finest Elektra performances, this did not feel like a performance but the singer incarnating the character.

Sara Jakubiak is one of those singers who throw themselves wholeheartedly into a role; we saw her in 2023 at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin in another Christof Loy production, Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini [see my review]. Her Chrysothemis was glamorous, yes, but also powerful and feisty. Jakubiak made her restless and almost angry at times, chafing at her confinement, with Jakubiak's richly upholstered voice adding an extra dramatic quotient to the role. This was a thrilling performance that wonderfully matched Stemme, so that their scenes together really bristled with emotions, and Stemme was brilliant at the unsaid, the physical response to Jakubiak's vivid articulation of Chrysothemis' emotions.

Strauss: Elektra - Michael Gibson - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)
Strauss: Elektra - Michael Gibson - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)

Elektra is one of those operas where dramatic sopranos can move through the roles as their voices change, from Chrysothemis to Elektra and finally to Klytämnestra. This latter is, however, a mezzo-soprano role (the first Klytämnestra was a dramatic contralto), but quite often taken by older sopranos like Karita Mattila who has made the move into what Rosalind Plowright calls the 'hags, bags, witches and bitches' repertoire with great dramatic aplomb. Perhaps the lower register rather lacked the resonance that a mezzo-soprano would have brought to it (Felicity Palmer was notable in this role, we saw her in the 2014 BBC Prom with Christina Goerke, see my review). But Mattila made up for it with a thrilling dramatic focus, giving us a sense of over-the-top divadom in the role. Mattila's Klytämnestra had a striking look of Ivana Trump in later life, and her vivid behaviour seemed to tie in with that sort of media personality. Perhaps this Klytämnestra was not the most intensely disturbed that I have seen, other singers have made her upset over her dreams go really deep, but there was no questioning of the vividness of Mattila's performance and the lovely way she goaded Stemme's Elektra.

The smaller roles were well taken and equally strongly presented. Lukasz Golinski was a robust, rough-hewn Orest, holding himself in and seemingly at the end of his tether. It was a moving yet vigorous performance, aided by Michael Mofidian's nervy and anxious companion. Charles Workman was a handsomely glamorous as Agisth, a character you trust no further than you could throw him; you could see this Klytämnestra and Ägisth as media darlings, all surface and no depth.

The maids (Noa Beinart, Veena Kama-Makia, Gabriele Kupsyte, Ella Taylor, Valentina Puskas) at the opening were well depicted, creating a vivid sense of place with Lee Bisset rather luxury casting as the Overseer. Marianne Cotterill and Amanda Baldwin were Klytämnestra's companions, whilst Michael Gibson was the young servant and Jeremy White was the Old Servant. And not a weak link anywhere.

One last thing; I am not sure who was responsible for it, but Klytämnestra's off-stage scream was terrific too.

Strauss: Elektra - Karita Mattila, Nina Stemme - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)
Strauss: Elektra - Karita Mattila, Nina Stemme - Royal Opera (Photo: ROH/Tristram Kenton)

Almost as important a character was the orchestra. Pappano's direction was masterly, he kept a sense of the works dramatic flow whilst drawing vivid playing from the orchestra, full of powerful and expressive detail. It never felt held back, yet the strong colours, intense detail and powerful climaxes never overwhelmed the singers so that for once the intensity of the drama flowed in all directions. A superb account.

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