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'.
Getty
Show Hide image

Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution