Die Fledermaus and Elektra: Emotional trauma and tortured self-examination at the opera

This autumn, there's a generous helping of dark, psychological drama available in London's opera houses.

Elektra; Die Fledermaus
Royal Opera House; English National Opera

Psychosexual malaise is the order of the day in London’s opera houses this autumn. Whether you prefer it served up with comedy in English National Opera’s Die Fledermaus or horror at the Royal Opera House’s Elektra is up to you, but either way you can expect lashings of emotional trauma and tortured self-examination.

Unfortunately in the case of Fledermaus the audience themselves are the victims of most of the trauma, and director Christopher Alden undertakes none of the self-examination. Strauss’s Rosalinde and Gabriel Von Eisenstein find themselves strapped to Dr Freud’s couch in fin-de-siecle Vienna, unable to engage in the easy, waltzing plot because they are too busy being analysed and essentialised. We discover Rosalinde (Julia Sporsen) asleep in bed, beset by erotic dreams and bats, who eventually morph into the vengeaful Dr Falke (Richard Burkhard). Above the action an oversized version of the Eisenstein’s pocket-watch (or perhaps Dali’s) swings mesmerically back and forth, jolting us out of the action every time things threaten to get too real.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Alden strips his characters of all but their comedic shells, leaving Rian Lois’s Adele as a hollow caricature of maribou feathers and maddening silliness, Alfred (Edgaras Montvidas) as a posing buffoon and Rosalinde herself as a cipher. This is a comedy desperately in search of some psychological subtext, and Sporsen finds herself caught between the explicit and the implicit and sadly fails to sing her way out of it. Her czardas is pretty enough, but lacks any real hit of exotic sex-appeal.

Preserving much of the spoken dialogue (perhaps unwisely, given singers’ habitual problems with acting), Alden condemns his cast to long swathes of lukewarm wit, that curdles uncomfortably with the unexpected addition of a jackbooting Nazi Frosch (Jan Pohl). Andrew Shore’s Frank fares better, salvaging not only humour but even a little humanity from the situation. He is aided by the enchanting Jennifer Holloway as a shamelessly overdone (but no less engaging) Orlovsky, all twitching neurosis and convulsing Russian vowels.

The ENO orchestra prances gamely through Strauss’s score but under the direction of Eun Sun Kim they never quite find that excess, that giddy ecstasy that has to underpin these bourgeois little melodies if they are not to sink under their own smugness. It’s a problem to which Alden isn’t immune either. He has painted his stage loudly in the colours and conceits of Freud’s Vienna, but look even the smallest bit deeper and there’s just an emptiness where true dramatic subconscious and subtext should be. I would go so far as to diagnose Alden’s patient with a terminal strain of vapidity.

All is darker and infinitely deeper over at the Royal Opera House where Charles Edwards’ 2005 Elektra returns – a brutal triumph of musical and psychological violence. It all starts in the pit with Andris Nelsons’ orchestra. There’s weight here certainly, and as much volume as you’re ever likely to hear in this building, but more importantly there’s a clarity to Strauss’s strata of sound – the acid-bright trumpets and bosky horns looming ominously mid-texture.

Edwards’s set collides the worlds of ancient Greece and Weimar Germany, reframing the bloody atrocities of the earlier era in the context of Straus’s own age. Echoing an opera through the age of its composition is a classic technique, and one that works rather better for Edwards here than Alden at ENO. While Alden’s new world feels pasted on, Edwards embeds his action deeply, maintaining the integrity of both original and reworked contexts. He is helped by the humanity of Strauss’s writing, exposing and raking over the most potent and shameful essence of his characters, from Chrysothemis’ desperate yearning for “a woman’s destiny” to Elektra’s desire to play the man and lose herself in dominance – “I will encircle you with tendrils, I will sink myself into you”.

It takes almost an hour for any male characters to enter Strauss’s musical landscape, and in this world of women (and the sonic light-headedness of this unique resonance) our ears attune anew. In Christine Goerke’s Elektra we have a voice and presence that’s raw and dangerous. Completely in control vocally (as she demonstrates so overwhelmingly in the Recognition Scene), she still manages to find a roughness that speaks more convincingly than any amount of vocal ease of her conviction. She has her match in Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis – warmly enveloping and never less than lovely.

The maddened perversions of Klytamnestra’s eroticism-turned-inwards risk stridency in Michaela Schuster’s hands, but are digested by the scope of the production which plays to extremes. Iain Paterson’s Orest by contrast finds muted delicacy in his brief appearance – foremost among a strong supporting cast.

It’s perhaps unfair to set Johan Strauss’s feather-light score against Richard Strauss’s and expect it to compete, but in reimagining Fledermaus as a Freudian fantasy of Ids and Egos Alden made it fair game. Skin-deep psychology is never going to be a winner, and it’s just unfortunate that Edwards was on hand to show us just what we were missing.

Rhian Lois as Adele in the ENO's 'Die Fledermaus'.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era