The opera house in Umeå, Norrlands Operan, and the Spanish artistic team, La Fura dels Baus, have succeeded tremendously with their great undertaking of Richard Strauss’ expressionistic opera Elektra from the early 1900s. The production goes down in history as the world’s largest outdoor opera stage. It was built on an old military base in Umeå. On one end stood audience bleachers for 2,000 spectators. The audience looked out over the huge space that spread out far into the woods 200 meters afield. The stormy nordic sky enhanced the dramatic backdrop. The stage floor with piles of birch trunks, graveled hills, vast swampy puddles, stacks of industrial containers and cranes symbolized Elektra’s murdered father, Agamemnon’s grave site. It looked gray, bleak and inhospitable.
The audience sat expectantly awaiting what the Umeå2014 leadership had promised would be something so magnificent and spectacular that we all will talk about it for generations to come. The spectators were dressed for the winter in the chilly summer night, without complaint. The symphony orchestra of 73 musicians lead by conductor Rumon Gamba were plucking their strings and tuning their instruments inside the warmth of a nearby building while the soloists and hundreds of extras, crane drivers, pyrotechnics, and others, were warming up, preparing for the 100 minutes long show in moisture and cold.
And then it was time. The dusk was greeted by the first painful and stately stanzas. A group of stout women in wetsuits and red aprons took the stage washing large skeins of rope in the water pool closest to the audience. Suddenly, the front of the large containers opened up. Bloody water came gushing out in copious amounts. The water level on the graveyard rose and turned red. It was macabre, shocking and powerful in its great simplicity. The darkness fell over the crowd and the stage. A gray bird shook its feathers while curiously looking about. The performer inside was burdened by the large suit, though that we did not notice as the winged creature looked very real and alive. We had all heard rumors about the giant puppets used in the show that were operated by cranes and 5 – 10 extras. But there was nothing that could have prepared us for the massive magic when Elektra, in the form of a 12 meter high puppet literally grew from the earth of her beloved father’s grave. The crane rose her slowly. The extras were pulling on long ropes. Elektra came alive. The opera singer Ingela Brimberg’s powerful voice filled soul, earth and sky. The lament over her dead father turned into an all-consuming desire for revenge. Equally amazing is the gentle sister Chrysotemis’ entrance when this giant doll soared in over the audiences. Susanna Levonen, a miniature version of the puppet, was standing in its chest and sung sometimes horrified, sometimes soothing to her unforgiving sister. The miniature people finally wept in each other’s arms grieving their destiny, behind them towered their mythological self.
Each entrance was a marvel to behold. I found my self sitting with my mouth wide-open and with tears streaming down my checks during the entire first half of the opera. Perhaps the most powerful and fearsome appearance was of the evil mother. At a distance of 100 meters Klytaimnestra’s gigantic cone-shaped carriage rolled toward the audience and the two weeping sisters. Frightened the gentle-one quickly disappeared, while Elektra summoned her own courage. The mother stood high up rising a staff over her head. Below her, a pyramid of living human bodies. They moved like one single organism. Mindless, hellish and grotesque. With her power spear she plagued the bodies until they were all stained in blood. The mother reached the ground only wearing a long cloak. Naked breasts and black triangle mesmerized in an odd way. The expressionist vision turned even worse when the zombie-like human bodies flowed in behind the grim leader. The sound of clasping feet was awful as the mass moved like the tail of a giant lizard. The mother’s hatred flowed as polluted waves over her rebellious offspring. When she showed off her power pulling in the thick rope that fettered her daughter I was reminded of when I myself was Elektra in Euripides’ ancient Greek play in the United States. My Elektra was also made a prisoner chained from her neck to the palace. It is an extremely hard and heavy role to play. The darkness, pain and rage one must endure is extremely intense. I felt great respect for what these artists were creating.
Finally I burst out laughing!
The mother’s murderous lover took focus with fanfare! Magnus Khyle as Aigistos arrived in a bright red vintage car, top down. He too was naked under a long cloak. Boasting a large crown on his head and a fat belly while his manhood was minimal. His entourage was similar to Klytaimnestra’s except that they made out a smaller and disorganized squad. As a rooster he strutted about. His and Elektra’s distaste for each other was palpable and she craved blood and revenge. Aigistos yearned for news about Elektra’s brother Orestes’ death so that he once for all could secure his place on the throne next to his queen and mistress. His desire was reciprocated.
The crowd turned breathless when we heard the clatter of hooves and a coal-black steed galloped up onto the stage. The horse splashed blood red water in cascades around its mighty and graceful body. The rider stirred the stallion towards the forest and the magical moment was but a memory. The messenger brought news of Orestes’ death. Elektra was crushed as her last hope for justice and liberation had joined Agamemnon in the kingdom of sorrow and shadows.
But at the very limit of what she could endure a hero did appeared from afar. He was crowned with a victorious halo of flaming letters. His head touched the dark clouds above as he was rolled onto the stage. He appeared increasingly larger and larger. Orestes was alive! The reunion was heartfelt and the revenge cruel.
Kudos to the director Carlus Padrissa and to every person, big or small, who participated in and otherwise supported the production and performance of this exceptional show. Rarely have I seen such high artistry and sophisticated logistics as achieved by Norrlands Operan and La Fura dels Baus. The grand opening of the Capital of Culture on February 1 this year was unfortunately something of a belly flop on the ice. Therefore it is with deep joy and gratitude I can announce that this production was a splendid success and a game changer that spreads its light through all of this so important year for Umeå and its region.
That which was promised have been delivered. This opera will be remembered for generations to come and will inspire many artistic productions in the future. I bow deeply and say: Thank you!
By Ottiliana Rolandsson