Aristotle wrote that classical tragedy should evoke pity and awe. With Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the awe can be taken as read: a certain irreducible level of epicness is written into the score, even if – like Sir Antonio Pappano on the first night of this new production at the Royal Opera – a conductor takes the composer’s advice and treats it like Mendelssohn’s ‘fairy music’. But I genuinely hadn’t expected quite so much of the other emotion – pity, or if you prefer, compassion. There it was, though, welling up from the bottom of the orchestra, worrying away at one’s preconceptions, until in the Recognition Scene the eyes started to prick and the heart started to race in that way that isn’t exclusive to opera, exactly, but does seem to happen more often in the opera house than with any other art form.
I’m struggling to attribute that cumulative impact to any one element of Christof Loy’s staging, because pretty much everything hits the spot. As Hofmannsthal’s libretto specifies, the set (by Johannes Leiacker) represents the prison-like back courtyard of a palace complex, here located in a generic mid-20th century. Doors swing open and lights flick on indoors, where the household can be glimpsed rushing about in panic as terrible events unfold, unseen. Loy’s storytelling is lucid, but shot through with visual poetry. The costumes spell out the social hierarchies (a maid’s outfit for the degraded Elektra; full ball gown and jewels for her murderous mother), and a servant brings a flaming torch to throw ritual light on the final bloodbath.
It’s deceptively simple and reassuringly naturalistic. Loy is always an interesting director but I’ve rarely seen his vision focused as effectively as it is in Elektra.