Elektra: Power and passion from Irish National Opera in the Kilkenny rain

Soprano Giselle Allen projects captivating humanity and emotional intensity


The Castle Yard, Kilkenny
Her father was hacked to death with a hatchet. He was taking a bath. After that, her life had followed a single, dark fixation: vengeance upon the person who did it. Her mother.

The father was Agamemnon, returning Trojan War hero, and his daughter is Elektra, now twisted with long-simmering rage. When Sophocles dramatised her story he was interested in moral questions, like when is it okay for you to kill someone in your family.

But Richard Strauss, composing his opera hundreds of years later in 1907, was not. Theories of psychoanalysis and the earliest writings of Freud were just coming to prominence then, and Strauss's preoccupation was the mental state of his characters. The result, for massive orchestra, was like one of his symphonic tone-poems, but with voices, voices giving almost continuous, merciless expression to interior dissonance, anger, and fear, primarily Elektra's in one of the most demanding roles in opera.

Irish National Opera, presenting a new staging of this work, hit the jackpot with soprano Giselle Allen. She summons immense vocal strength and stamina to contend with Strauss's vast instrumental forces and project a captivating humanity and emotional intensity in a role that never departs the stage.


What's more, she does it in the rain. This was a pandemic-enforced outdoor production at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, with the heavens opening minutes after the start on Saturday night. We in the audience, soaked and shivering – just two people walked out – appreciate only too well the absolute heroics on stage.

This of course extends to every singer, each one impeccably cast to the last maid and soldier. Strauss's main setpieces include sharp clashes of mindset between Elektra, driven and obsessive, and her sister Chrysothemis – weary of strife, longing for children and normality – and with her murderous mother, wealthy, decadent and arrogant while straining to mask her fear of retribution. These other central roles are sung with intense credibility by Máire Flavin and Imelda Drumm respectively.

The production is a triumph of site-specific direction (Conall Morrison) and staging (Paul Keogan), with Catherine Fay’s costume designs evoking a Soviet-era military setting. There was some loss of orchestral richness in the otherwise adequate amplification of the score, prerecorded under conductor Fergus Sheil last month