Irish National Opera at Kilkenny Castle Yard, on 14 August 2021
The Kilkenny Castle Yard (that patch of grass behind Kilkenny Design) is the kind of space that suggests an edgy student production. One might expect to see a performer come out with a placard telling us we’re all doomed, in time-honoured fashion, which would almost be comforting. In reality, the fact that this show is going ahead at all is thanks to the energy of both Kilkenny Arts Festival and Irish National Opera, determined to present work to a live audience while complying with current guidelines.
Richard Strauss’s Elektra is not a safe option: never staged in Ireland before, a fierce drama of vengeance, family dysfunction, and violent death, with a demanding musical score, it is bracingly visceral and angry. There can be no orchestra (and this opera calls for a larger-than-usual ensemble), so the instrumental music was pre-recorded and heard played over speakers. Occasionally the band is shown in action, projected onto the back wall like a ghostly presence. Conductor Fergus Sheil was also filmed through the recording session, and he is seen on screens within the eyeline of the performers. The only live artists are the thirteen singers.
Not a natural amphitheatre, the Yard has no acoustic, so the singers are amplified with radio mics. Any immediacy relies on available technologies, like much else now. We adjust to the narrowed sonic profile and learn not to expect the location of the voices to relate to where the singers are on stage. In a real sense, we are all part of this, together, audience and performers equally, stuck in the same compound and in that sense—as an immersive project, or a kind of installation—it works powerfully. Any view of the performances, however, reflects these limitations.
The production sets the story in some mid-20th-century (or post-apocalyptic) fascist state, with the men in uniform and the women in grey. Director Conall Morrison has few interpretive options and tells the story in the conventional—and, here, site-specific—space of a darkly fortified castle. It would be intriguing to see this work explored in a more intimate setting, like an Ibsen play, but this is not the time or the place. Having established a broad reality for the drama, the approach sensibly focuses on individual roles and their relationships to each other, physically and vocally.
Giselle Allen brings the title role, Elektra, into bright focus, with singing of passionate intensity and technical power, pacing the stage like Rilke’s panther. The role is notoriously difficult to sustain, but her performance is tireless, perfectly shifting from vibrant fury in the opening scenes to a sweet serenity in the scene with Tómas Tómasson (as Elektra’s long-lost brother, Orest). As Chrysothemis (Elektra’s more peaceable sister) soprano Máire Flavin proves a powerful foil to Allen. The contrast between the two is deeply striking, with Flavin’s performance a thing of beauty, expressively sung, and acted with commitment and fervour.
Completing the trio of powerful female roles is mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm, who is suitably imperious in the role of the mother, Klytämnestra. The audio setup amplifies the chest register of her voice in a way that would not normally carry in a theatre—a welcome side-effect here, given the grotesque darkness of her character. Of the men, bass-baritone Tómasson is superb as Orest, his deep tone penetrating and unsettling, while tenor Peter Marsh (Aegisth) brings a keen edge to his concise role. The unnamed minor characters add still more, with a rich variety of singing, including (as one example) the all-too-brief appeal of Emma Nash as the Fifth Maid in the opening scene.
As with any good production, this was not merely a retelling but also an exploration of the work. One cannot avoid the underlying irony of the story, and its harsh clash of values between exultant victory and the empty glamour of revenge. The energy of the finale is all too easy to revel in, even as its brittleness is revealed. It is a strong choice of work, boldly defiant with real punch, and deserves a far larger audience. The optimism and trust in this work by performers and producers wins out, absolutely, and movingly.
Richard Strauss: Elektra
Sung in German (libretto by Hugo van Hofmannsthal, after Sophocles), with English surtitles
Produced by Irish National Opera
Director: Conall Morrison; Set/Lighting/Video Designer: Paul Keogan; Costume Designer: Catherine Fay; Conductor: Fergus Sheil
Cast: Giselle Allen (Elektra), Máire Flavin (Chrysothemis), Imelda Drumm (Klytämnestra), Tómas Tómasson (Orest), Peter Marsh (Aegisth), Mairéad Buicke (Overseer), Doreen Curran (First Maid), Raphaela Mangan (Second Maid), Niamh O’Sullivan (Third Maid), Rachel Croash (Fourth Maid/Train Bearer), Emma Nash (Fifth Maid/Confidante), Andrew Gavin (Young Servant), Brendan Collins (Orest’s Tutor); INO Chorus
Irish National Opera Orchestra