OPERA / Greece is the word: Edward Seckerson reviews Welsh National Opera's Elektra in Cardiff

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The Independent Culture
AS STRAUSS's hefty orchestra flings down the four notes that spell Agamemnon, we are face to face with a row of washerwomen, mops and buckets in tow. Splashes of blood on sterile white tiles mark the spot. A single, naked light bulb hangs above it. Abattoir or madhouse? Both. This is a David Alden production. And if you weren't already sure about that, the change of scene clinches it: a vast, dark, empty room with one door seeping light (designers Paul Bond and Charles Edwards). There's no mistaking the look of an Alden show. It's a recurring nightmare: the theatre of cruelty and madness heaving with familiar visual metaphors. You know you've been there before but somehow or other it's new. It's the energy, an energy on the brink of anarchy.

Alden courts anarchy. The chaos born of order plainly fascinates him. He aims to get right inside Elektra's insanity, see the world as she sees it - a mass of ambiguities and contradictions. Klytemnestra's palace is to her a place of darkness and faded glamour. Sequin-gowned maids (or are they warders?) slink through the shadows offering cocktails one moment and restraint the next.

The way Alden plays upon familial ties is certainly the most original aspect of the show. Love and hate mingle in the great central scene between mother and daughter. Elektra cools Klytemnestra's fevered brow, anoints her feet, attempts to wash away the blood - Agamemnon's blood - that forever soils her mother's body. Moments later she'll be digging for the axe that will dismember it.

Other aspects of the show are more predictable if you know Alden's work. The image of Orestes walking in on his own wake is striking (rows of black chairs and white lilies), but this producer loves to trash and litter the stage. Alden also has fun with the 'light' metaphor: in the final scene Elektra drags out a standard lamp to ensure that Aegisth can see his way clearly to the slaughterhouse. The humour is important: it's there in the music - black, decadent. Inhuman.

As, of course, is the vocal writing. The title role is an everest for the complete and seasoned dramatic soprano, a voice-killer for the rest - few attempt to scale it. WNO found the American Janet Hardy, veteran of rather too many performances in the role - or so it would seem. If courage and commitment were all it took, then this lady would have it made. She is a gutsy performer, spitting and howling her retribution. But what is left of her big voice is, I'm afraid, woefully unequal to the task. On this evidence, the uppermost notes, precarious at best (a climactic C and even a B flat came to grief), are no longer tenable except as a kind of scream, and she is incapable of the soft-spun legato singing so essential to the tender caresses of her scene with Orestes (Phillip Joll); mostly, we get something dangerously close to a sprechstimme. It isn't enough. Eva Maria Bundschuh's Chrysothemis was also, one felt, at the limit of her possibilities. Her lines are Strauss's most gratefully lyric: she was having to fight rather than ride them. Only Felicity Palmer's Klytemnestra was truly on top of her role vocally, dramatically. Her artistry was at its most chillingly precise when quiet. That made a change from most Klytemnestras. In the pit, WNO's new Music Director, Carlo Rizzi, and his splendid orchestra duly laid bare the festering underbelly of this amazing score. If WNO ever do get an Opera House, let us hope the sound is half as revealing, as immediate and exciting as it is in the New Theatre.

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