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'.
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Brexit… Leg-sit

A new poem by Jo-Ella Sarich. 

Forgot Brexit. An ostrich just walked into the room. Actually,
forget ostriches too. Armadillos also have legs, and shoulder plates
like a Kardashian.  Then I walked in, the other version of me, the one
with legs like wilding pines, when all of them

are the lumberjacks. Forget forests. Carbon sinks are down
this month; Switzerland is the neutral territory
that carved out an island for itself. My body
is the battleground you sketch. My body is
the greenfield development, and you
are the heavy earthmoving equipment. Forget
the artillery in the hills
and the rooftops opening up like nesting boxes. Forget about

the arms race. Cheekbones are the new upper arms
since Michelle lost out to Melania. My cheekbones
are the Horsehead Nebula and you are the Russians
at warp speed. Race you to the finish. North Korea

will go away if you stop thinking
about it. South Korea will, too. Stop thinking
about my sternum. Stop thinking about
the intricacy of my mitochondria. Thigh gaps
are the new wage gaps, and mine is like
the space between the redwood stand
and the plane headed for the mountains. Look,

I’ve pulled up a presentation
with seven different eschatologies
you might like to try. Forget that my arms
are the yellow tape around the heritage tree. Forget
about my exoskeleton. Forget
that the hermit crab
has no shell of its own. Forget that the crab ever
walked sideways into the room.
Pay attention, people.

Jo-Ella Sarich is a New Zealand-based lawyer and poet. Her poems have appeared in the Galway Review and the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear