One of the great benefits of being on the board of the Perth International Arts Festival at the end of the first decade of this century was finding out about plans for major opera events as part of the Festival. Memorable was Lindy Hume’s inclusion of ‘Batavia’ with music by Richard Mills as well as his marvellous ‘Love of the Nightingale’ during her time as Artistic Director of the Festival. Both were produced in partnership with the West Australian Opera. Since then, similar relationships with the PIAF resulted in stunning productions of Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ and Benjamin Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’.
Of all these productions, it was ‘Elektra’ that I anticipated with the most enthusiasm. The opera is difficult. It has hugely demanding roles for the three principal women and for the role of Orest. The orchestra is very large and the forces needed to bring off a great production mean that Elektra, Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra have to have the vocal power, stamina and technique to carry these very difficult roles. Further, the production is massive for the conductor to hold together and also keep the pace rolling along. After all, the opera is relentless and is almost always performed from start to finish without a break. As a result, the key ingredient is to make the music move forward and the performers to be able to act convincingly to carry the terrible story to its violent conclusion.
To pull the production together, Matthew Lutton, who had never directed an opera before, was chosen. Although Matthew had directed Greek drama before (he had directed a great, fluids-filled interpretation of ‘Antigone’ at the Subiaco Arts Centre), making an opera convincing and enthralling is an added challenge.
Well, the ingredients were promising. The WA Opera was able to secure Strauss specialist, Eva Johansson to sing Elektra, Orla Boylan to be her sister Chrysothemis and veteran performer Elizabeth Campbell to play the murdering mother, Klytämnestra. Also, a key appointment was Daniel Sumegi to play Elektra’s brother Orest, the hero of the plot.
Matthew chose a grotty, minimal set with one large, narrow staircase coming down the left hand side. Plastic chairs and Elektra in a tracksuit weren’t promising. There was nothing of the ‘elegance’ of the Theban palace compound, but then again, most of the action takes place out in the courtyard where Elektra is living pretty much like an animal. Lutton captured the raw baseness of the human drama and the set underlined the meanness of the lust for power and its collateral damage.
The ‘highpoint’ of the drama in many respects was the entrance of Klytämnestra, who descended the steep staircase dressed like an escapee from Boca Raton (the retirement mecca in Florida) in a white pant suit, bald and sporting some pretty powerful dangle earrings. Her first act upon descending the stairway was to attack a maid with a knife and cut off her scull and place the maid’s hair on her head like a hairpiece. The audience didn’t know whether to gasp or laugh. However, that one action defined just how bloodthirsty the acts of power had been. After all, Klytämnestra and her present husband (the king Aegisth) had murdered her first husband Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan War.
The duet between Elektra and Klytämnestra was the highlight of the opera for me, but only just. There are so many great scenes from the court ladies gossiping at the opening of the opera to the diffidence of Elektra’s sister Chrysosthemis in their duet and the climatic recognition scene when Elektra discovers her brother has returned in disguise. Both Lutton’s direction and Mills’s conducting brought the audience breathlessly to the murderous climax of the opera.
To me, this is one of the greatest performances I have seen by the West Australian Opera in the time I have been in Perth. The marriage of the Festival and the Opera allowed such a huge adventure to be undertaken and we, the audience were the great beneficiaries. For Matthew Lutton, it was another wonderful achievement in what continues to be a brilliant career. For the WA Opera, the combination of great singers, an orchestra not only in form, but very enthusiastic, a fine conductor in Richard Mills and singers who proved they could act in such demanding roles and a concept that allowed the drama to proceed in all its gory glory. To top it all, Strauss’s music is so monumental and stunning. What a night!!!
Alan R. Dodge