Few myth-based operas quite go for the jugular like Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Elektra, which shattered a rapt BBC Proms audience into silence when unleashed on Tuesday night. A Shakespeare-cum-Schiller for the age of Freud and Expressionism, Hofmannstahl was not yet 30 when he coughed up the flood of images, of blood and barrenness that makes up Elektra's shivering text. Sophocles's stark original feels almost bare by comparison; for such ripe and jarring imagery, best look to Aeschylus, to grimmer Euripides, or to Sophocles's own Antigone, penned 25 years earlier.
Antigone saw the light of day at last week's Proms, a few evenings prior to Elektra, and in a particularly inspired piece of programming by Nicholas Kenyon, in an unusual incarnation: Mendelssohn's music for Johann Jakob Christian Donner's translation, awarded a neoclassic staging before King Frederick-William IV at Sans-Souci in 1841.
Not that there's much comparison. True, it is good to encounter rare Mendelssohn, and this was no mere music to order, but a cogent attempt to catch the bracing spirit of the Sophocles, whose exemplary choruses attempt to make nervous sense of the principled face-off between a headstrong heroine and her increasingly pig-headed uncle. Antigone is one of those plays where almost everyone dies, rather like Titus Andronicus, and somehow the rumpety-tum of Donner's German verse, even Anglicised, just ain't no match for those subtle trochees and anapaests of Attica's choric verse.
The director/translator Eugenia Arsenis needed more time with her speaking principals: Brian Protheroe's Creon and Zoë Waites's Antigone were - in the hall at least - the weaker links in this cast, leaving a hole at the middle. With David Calder to hand as Choregus - one of few actors with a roar to shiver you to pieces - Protheroe's empty and unsympathetic Creon looked dangerously like miscasting. David Tennant (a believably young Haemon) could well belong in that august company. Kate Duchêne's unwispy Ismene was good news; John Carlisle hammered out Tiresias handsomely.
Richard Hickox's team carved nicely through Mendel-ssohn's music, though never quite etched it on our hearts the way they might Fingal's Cave or Fair Melusina.
Inevitably, Elektra won hands down. Lucky enough to hear Elizabeth Connell assume the role briefly at the Royal Opera last April, I feared being underwhelmed. Mea culpa: this has to go down as one of the most terrifying, thrilling evenings at the Proms this century, and probably last century, too. Donald Runnicles lifted the BBC Scottish Symphony players to a new pinnacle. Only John Treleaven, a wonderful Tristan and one of the UK's sore losses - mainly to German opera houses - slightly disappointed, weakly directed in the difficult, virtual walk-on role of the lover- boy Aegisthus.
Otherwise, this was a corker. Who needs staging and sets, when the drama is so riveting? Here was Sophocles for a Lorca age: shut your eyes, and the gore duly dripped. Opening them was pretty mind-blowing too. Choosing a Chrysothemis who is a match, vocally and emotionally, for the astonishing Electra of Gabriele Schnaut (whose near-fisticuffs with Felicity Palmer's stunning, snarling, clammy Clytemnestra amply confirmed the lass as a chip off the old block) is another of the cast planner's big tasks.
Full marks to Kenyon and co for having the wits to sign up the gripping Janice Watson: a triumph for her, though it was a pity that the (uncredited) semi-staging director ducked the risqué, and never let Schnaut smother her sister with sensual affection ("How slender and supple are your hips...").
Add the American bass Alan Held, one of life's Wotans, whose ringingly severe Orestes can be heard again at the Bavarian State Opera this September, and you have a cast to kill for (apt metaphor, in this opera).
It is quite some feat when singers can pull off Strauss's scorching score without any eye contact with a conductor. The maids, with whose opening outburst Strauss lurches in, were spiffingly shocking (Susan Gorton and the young Rebecca Nash, to name but two). With even the scullery staff on form, you can bet it was a good show.
Continuing the 2003 Proms' 'Greek myths' theme, Parts I and II of Berlioz's 'The Trojans' will be performed as Prom 47 and Prom 48, on 25 August, at 3pm and 7pm respectivelyReuse content