Giselle Allen as Elektra. Presented by Irish National Opera in association with Kilkenny Arts Festival. Image Ste Murray.
There's a storm raging in Kilkenny's Castle Yard and it has nothing to do with the weather. Indeed, the threatening skies look positively embarrassed compared to Irish National Opera's thunderous outdoor production of Richard Strauss's Elektra, running as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. Based on Sophocles' tragedy, Strauss's modernist adaptation paints murderous revenge as a dish best served hot. Even though revenge really isn't its primary concern so much as the psychological states that govern it.
Bordering on the bombastic, Strauss's Elektra is a tale full of sound and fury signifying something different to Sophocles's original. First performed in 1909, as Freud and psychology were becoming all the rage, Strauss's psychological opera translates Fate into more recognisable mental and emotional states without completely dispensing with the former. The result, like Freudian psychology, being thunderously powerful and thematically untidy. Even as music and singing are unapologetically tempestuous and a whirlwind of ambition.
Giselle Allen and Márie Flavin in Elektra. Presented by Irish National Opera in association with Kilkenny Arts Festival.
Image Ste Murray.
Under Conall Morrison's stunning direction, Strauss's detailed character study is brought vividly to life by superlative soprano, Giselle Allen, who's never off stage. Nothing if not a Daddy's girl, Elektra is demented by grief after her father, Agamemnon, is murdered by her mother, Klytämnestra, a superb Imelda Drumm, who scuttles about like some evil insect. Raging against the dying of her father's light Elektra craves her mother's death to balance the scales in her head. While looking to enlist the support of her pragmatic, well behaved sister, Chrysothemis, a brilliant Márie Flavin, the timely arrival of her exiled brother sets Elektra's world to rights, with Tómas Tómasson's Orest the embodiment of military gravitas. Leaving Elektra's final moments to dissolve in a clumsy, clunky, and unconvincing attempt at catharsis.
Imelda Drumm (Klytämnestra ), Rachel Croash and Emma Nash in Elektra. Presented by Irish National Opera in association with Kilkenny Arts Festival. Image Ste Murray.
If Hugo von Hoffmansthal's libretto paints a picture of Elektra, Morrison steps over it, introducing Allen's jaw dropping Elektra mired in the blood and dirt of her mind, body and soul before a word is even uttered. To a modern eye the demonic Elektra can look somewhat impotent next to a Medea for not having raged as violently. Yet it is in her powerlessness that her strength lies. Beaten yet not broken, Allen's Elektra rages in rags, trapped in a hurricane she can do little about.
Throughout, Morrison emphasises the poetic possibilities of Strauss's operatic tone poem, whose symphonic, expressionist music ensures the audience experience as well as witness Elektra's anguish. If the need for a large orchestra is resolved with a prerecorded score, with Fergus Shiel conducting, it offers a more than credible work around. Assisted by Catherine Fay's costumes, Paul Keogan's set invests the Castle Yard with a rich, expressionistic atmosphere. One in which rain doesn’t impede so much as play its part. Even the sky looked perfectly lit. And on the evidence of Keogan's extraordinary lighting, utilising shadow and smoke and windows to perfection, you wouldn't have been surprised had you been told Keogan had orchestrated that too.
Elektra. Presented by Irish National Opera in association with Kilkenny Arts Festival. Image Ste Murray.
The only thing more impressive is the quality of singing performed under demanding conditions. It's easy to see why Allen is singled out for the lion's share of praise. She is unforgettable in one of opera's most demanding roles. From her axe wielding savagery to her silent haka, Allen's angry, terrified Elektra wears her heart on her filthy sleeve, singing with a voice that soars so as to challenge the heavens. Soprano Flavin's singing also proves extraordinary in a role that could easily be eclipsed by its more dynamic lead. Similarly mezzo-soprano Drumm and bass-baritone Tómasson, with singers not so much matching the thunder of Strauss's music as taming it. Creating an operatic spectacle well worth braving the rain for. On the off chance of rain.
Elektra, by Richard Strauss, presented by Irish National Opera in association with Kilkenny Arts Festival, runs at the Castle Yard, Kilkenny until August 14.