About 30 minutes before the end of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the universe splits open. Elektra, daughter of the murdered king Agamemnon, lives for the day when her brother Orest will return to avenge her father by slaughtering her mother. Now Orest is here and his sister no longer recognises him. Until suddenly, shatteringly, she does, and Strauss’s 109-piece orchestra unleashes a dissonant scream unlike anything that had been heard in European music. Indeed, for many listeners in 1909 it was the end of music. Satirists compared it to capital punishment (one cartoon depicted a quaking victim of ‘Elektra-cution’). When it transferred to Covent Garden in 1910, newspapers promised London audiences ‘the most arduous score ever written’. It sold out.
Anyway, happy new year! That’s how the Royal Opera is greeting 2024, and if a 110 minute onslaught of sonic psychosis feels about right for our times, it has an additional significance for the company. This staging by the German-born director Christof Loy will be the last wholly new production conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano before he steps down as the company’s music director at the end of this season, after 22 years. It’ll also be the first time Pappano has conducted Elektra at Covent Garden.
‘It’s a piece that I used to coach quite a bit in my youth,’ says Pappano. ‘But isn’t it weird that Elektra has been performed at the Royal Opera in three incarnations during my time here, and I always gave it away? I used it to lure big-name conductors, but I always secretly coveted it for myself.’ Being music director of a major company isn’t the carte-blanche that armchair fans like to imagine. Pappano dangled this great glistening hunk of musical expressionism as bait to tempt guest conductors of the stature of Semyon Bychkov and Andris Nelsons to Covent Garden.