OPERA / Deranged marriages: Stephen Johnson on Gotz Friedrich's electrifying production of Elektra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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It is odd the way a good Elektra can get under your skin. At first, the combination of Hofmannsthal's shock- horror scene-setting and Strauss's lurching from expressionism to schmaltz and back again seems to promise only titillation or high camp. Enjoy it as Grand Guignol or Hammer Horror. But in the right hands the characters can develop beyond grotesques, and with Strauss's music to power it, the Elektra-Orestes recognition scene and the final orgasm of hate can be uncomfortably stirring.

In this Covent Garden revival, Gotz Friedrich's economical set works as well as ever. The corrugated- iron sewer interior, pierced by a single, spear-like shaft, suggests modern, urban horrors, as do Elektra's down- and-out rags. But in this bleak, claustrophobic environment, one also meets such creatures as Nadine Secunde's Marilyn Monroe-like Chrysothemis, or Marjana Lipovsek's Klytemnestra - a gorgeous, Beardsley-ish horror, her hunched, hobbling but determined gait (walking stick flailing) the image of menace.

It takes slightly longer to accept Eva Marton's Elektra. Visually she could be disappointingly static (Hofmannsthal's libretto speaks of cat-like hissings and flashing of claws), and at first it was the power, rather than the beauty or trueness, of her singing that stood out. But her performance deepened with the part.

The recognition scene was unusually touching at the first night on Wednesday - affording glimpses of a more tender Elektra, not quite ground out of existence by her brutal treatment. And the climax carried quite a charge, even if Marton's movements fell some way short of mad, triumphant dancing.

With Marton comes a splendid supporting cast. Nadine Secunde's desperate Chrysothemis is poignant and disturbing - Elektra isn't the only one halfway to derangement - and there's some beautiful singing from her. Robert Hale's Orestes makes a chilling entry: posture almost inhumanly straight, the light behind him eclipsing his face. His dark, coldly sustained singing suggests another kind of derangement - whatever it is he represents, it surely isn't natural justice.

Robert Tear's harsh, vulgar, Aegisthus epitomises a nastier kind of power-seeking - a man determined to punish the world for his own failings. His tiger-skin cloak is an inspiration - was there ever a less tigerish tyrant?

And then there is Lipovsek's Klytemnestra, sounding as magnificent as she looks. Her account of her recurring nightmare, to Strauss's unforgettably grotesque accompaniment (muted Wagner tubas and contrabassoon), was quite enough to make the flesh creep. Her laugh of triumph when she hears of the death of Orestes was, if anything, more chilling still. And the Royal Opera Orchestra, under Christian Thielemann, played magnificently throughout.

Thielemann's approach was relatively expansive - not the hard- driven thrill-machine of a Solti - but this paid off well in the Elektra-Orestes exchanges, and the momentum was well sustained to the end. There are five more performances to come. Try to see at least one of them.

Further performances of 'Elektra' on 31 January, 4, 8, 12, 17 February, at the Royal Opera House. Box office: 48 Floral Street, London WC2 (071-240 1911 / 071-240 1066)

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