On occasion, an opera in concert comes along that knocks your socks off with such potency and power that not a skerrick of disappointment is felt for the absence of story-setting scenic and costumed designs characteristic of a fully staged production.
That was the case on Wednesday evening when Victorian Opera presented a one-concert-only performance of Richard Strauss’ riveting one-act modernist opera, Elektra, at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.
Heaving with incredulous artistic expression and challenging demands for soloists and musicians alike, Elektra, in fact, is perfectly suited for the concert experience in how its deeply contoured psycho-dramatic focus is laid bare.
In this way, it could only have been achieved, as it was with such sizzling strength, with a superlative cast – led by acclaimed British soprano Catherine Foster in a resplendent tour-de-force performance in the title role – and the expertise and commitment of an incisive conductor and talented orchestra.
Welling with dark, shadowy, glinting and swiftly changing moods, rhythmic tensions and often cacophonous bursts, Strauss’ score is rightly considered to be among the best dramatic music of the early twentieth century.
That drama and intensity was keenly aroused and aflame with Artistic Director Richard Mills at the helm as he garnered everything possible from the combined forces of Orchestra Victoria and musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in a stage-filling contingent of almost 100 musicians. Enormous praise is deserved for their impeccable playing and deeply expressive soundscape created under Mills’ leadership.
Elektra premiered in Dresden in 1909 when Strauss was in his early 40s, a little over 4 years after the premiere of his first opera to achieve international fame, Salome.
Embedded in a time of great political and artistic debate and advancements in psychology, Strauss responded lavishly when he set music to librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s text retelling the ancient Greek legend based on Sophocles’ tragic play, Electra.
The work is ultimately a gruesome and fatal family tragedy that stems from the murder of Elektra’s father King Agamemnon by her mother Klytemnestra and her mother’s lover Aegisth.
Restless with revenge, Elektra confesses to her sister Chrysothemis her intent to rid the house of the two murderers and seeks the assistance of her conflicted sister before her brother Orest, presumed dead, returns in a surprise twist that seals the fate of mother and lover.
To deliver the concept demands artists of the highest calibre who can not only rise to punishing vocal heights but can act with truly convincing depth.
From the moment the story began with an orchestral sonic boom to the closing horror of the tragedy 100 minutes later, Foster presided over the stage with a formidable presence while showcasing a blazing display of vocal prowess in the title role.
Wearing a fitted black gown beneath a plush flowing chamber coat, Foster brought an imperious but troubled air to the Elektra she first introduced.
Launching into a monumental Allein! Weh, ganz allein (Alone! Alas, all alone), in which she relays her father’s murder, there was no hesitation in believing in her ability to last the distance. Alone she was, as if singing from Everest with her rich, sumptuous instrument soaring and submerging with captivating expressivity.
Thereon, Elektra’s pitiable psycho-trauma poured out compellingly from Foster, coming with it along the way, a sense of intimidation mixed with detachment and dismissiveness in her demeanour.
Later, the momentary melting of her damaged core revealed itself when Foster sang Elektra’s heart filled Orest! Es rührt sich niemand, (Orest! No man stirreth) with pleasurable warmth and affection following her reunion with her brother Orest.
Elektra’s irreversible vengeance, none-the-less persisted to the end when merely a waft-like dance preceded Foster taking a calm seat on her chair as the stage lights abruptly extinguished.
Not alone in performance stature, Foster was surrounded by luxury Australian casting. Soprano Anna-Louise Cole’s star trajectory gathered further strength with a penetrating, radiant and affectingly characterised performance as Elektra’s conflicted sister, Chrysothemis, her final duet with Foster as they praise their brother’s actions in Hörst du denn nicht? (Don’t you hear?), a thrilling and cementing display of her world-class qualities.
In an unforgettably and fiercely magnificent performance as Elektra’s nightmare-crazed mother, Klytemnestra, mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble’s return to the Melbourne stage was nothing short of breathtaking.
If Elektra’s soul was diseased by revenge, Klytemnestra’s was by depravity and torment with Humble digging deep in acting out her character’s wildly intoxicating monstrosity across a chasm of vocal invincibility, dexterity, and colour.
Top to bottom, every role bristled with purpose, individuality and strength. Each time Germany-based baritone Derek Welton hits the local stage he impresses immensely. It was no different here with Welton giving an authoritative and nuanced performance as Elektra’s valiant brother Orest.
Appearing late in proceedings, tenor James Egglestone brought vocal muscularity to Klytemnestra’s paramour, Aegisth. Kathryn Radcliffe lit up the role of Trainbearer and Overseer splendidly and Olivia Cranwell made a particularly excellent display of her gleaming and thrusting soprano as the Confidante.
Maidservants Shakira Dugan, Sally-Anne Russell, Rebecca Rashleigh and Dimity Shepherd spiced the drama in exceptionally animated form.
Paul Biencourt (Young Servant), Stephen Marsh (Old Servant) and Simon Meadows (Guardian of Orest) all acquitted themselves finely in small roles and a chorus of 25 householders calling out the arrival of Orest from within, following the murder of Aegisth in the finale, provided a ghostly background as voices behind the scene and, from the stalls, unseen and mysteriously unknown where their ethereal voices emanated from.
Taking a deep breath and gathering myself after Elektra’s explosive, head-on encounter, I left Hamer Hall in total awe of opera’s significant and often inexplicable value. That, and a little feeling of dismay for those who might have no idea what they were missing.
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 14 September 2022
Image: Richard Mills (background) and Catherine Foster – photo by Charlie Kinross
Review: Paul Selar