GENEVA A new production of Elektra in Geneva pares back the stage business to focus on the overwhelming music of Richard Strauss in his shattering drama of obsession and revenge.
The bleakly oppressive sets put New Orleans soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet as Elektra -- one of the most demanding roles in opera -- at the centre of attention.
Her powerful but richly lyrical rendition of a role she has sung in Warsaw, London and Berlin garnered repeated cheers from the first-night audience at Geneva's Grand Theatre on Wednesday.
Charbonnet says she is attracted to the most challenging roles, and Elektra -- on stage for virtually the entire opera in what amounts to one long, mad scene -- is certainly one of them.
"Elektra is for me one of the most horrible and rewarding to inhabit. I have come to love her, to want to hold her and make it all better, something that cannot be done," she said in a recent blog interview with opera critic and writer William Madison.
Most opera is about sex and violence, but this one -- retaining the same power to shock as it did at its premiere in Dresden, Germany in 1909 -- is mainly about violence.
Almost the only colours in the sets and 1940s costumes were monotonous blacks, greys and whites, broken here and there by blood-stained clothes, reflecting the blood-soaked libretto of Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the first of his many collaborations with Strauss.
The opera, based on an ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles, describes a section of the story of the accursed House of Atreus. Klytaemnestra has murdered her husband Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, after he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis at the outset of the Trojan War.
At the start of the opera, another daughter, Elektra, is obsessed with avenging her father's murder. Her brother Orestes, believed dead, returns, and kills Klytaemnestra and her lover. Elektra dances a dance of ecstasy, then drops down dead.
"In the end I feel emotionally exhausted, depleted and hungry. Some productions end with exultation, a death with a smile on her face, but this is not one of them," said Charbonnet.
Not surprisingly for an opera written as Sigmund Freud was laying the foundations for psycho-analysis, the drama exposes the deep emotions that run between children and their parents.
It marks the furthest point that Strauss went in exploring dissonance -- a high-point of early 20th century modernism -- before he settled on the lush tones and waltzes of later operas such as Der Rosenkavalier.
Still -- as always in Strauss -- the opera is a paean to the soprano voice, with, besides the title role, Elektra's sister Chrysothemis, and her mother Klytaemnestra, sung here by the Hungarian diva Eva Marton, a great Elektra in the past.