In the Royal Opera revival of Richard Strauss's Elektra, the overwhelming theme is blood, both metaphorical and literal. Klytämnestra cannot wash away the blood of her murdered husband Agamemnon; the blood ties of their children Elektra, Chrysothemis and Orestes entrap them in the cycle of revenge just as the blood tie between Agamemnon and Menelaus started the disastrous Trojan war in the first place. And while there isn't any actual on-stage killing, the production, directed and designed by Charles Edwards, is awash with the stuff: there's enough red spattered around the stage to make the designers of a violent video game blanch.

At the centre of all this mayhem, three strong women are sung by three superbly strong singers. The supremely demanding title role is sung by Christine Goerke, who leaves no-one in any doubt that Elektra is in control of proceedings – in fact, she is in control of everything except her own mental stability. Goerke sings with mesmerising power and shifts of tone as Elektra veers from violent to distraught to manipulative, all the time remaining utterly focused on avenging her father's death. I have one slight cavil with Goerke's singing style: there's so much vibrato at the top that I didn't get the confidence that high notes were being hit in the middle. None the less, it was a bravura performance. As Klytämnestra, Michaela Schuster almost matches Goerke for unhinged mood swings and raw power. Elektra's sister Chrisothemis, whose only desire is to escape from all this to a normal life, can appear a weaker character, but Adrienne Pieczonka imbues her with nobility and strength of character as well as bringing us a meltingly smooth vocal timbre. The contrast between her character and that of her wilder sister is nicely mirrored in the contrast between Goerke and Pieczonka's vocal qualities.

Towards the end of the opera, further vocal and musical contrast is provided by the arrival of Iain Paterson's Orestes. The psychology changes as, simultaneously, revenge turns from a fantasy into a probable event, and sibling love becomes a possibility. As Elektra becomes a spent force, Paterson's Orestes grows in authority, displaying both brotherly affection and the implacable force of a man compelled to murder.

Elektra was an opera born in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and is jam packed from beginning to end with enough repression, incest and general sexual trauma to keep any Freudian busy for months. Edwards does plenty enough to keep this at the front of your mind, and brings in a modern theme by using a Freud-era set of crumbling empire. Although the outline of the set is straightforward, combining a classical wall with a modern glass wall and revolving door, the stage is made busy and oppressive by being piled with documents, old books and various relics (as well as blood stains and blood spattered people). Bright, bejewelled, 1920s era costumes for Klytämnestra and Chrisothemis are beautifully designed; otherwise, set and costumes are grey and dingy. From the pit, conductor Andris Nelsons piles on the tension: Strauss scored Elektra for a big orchestra, and Nelsons keeps his tempi fast, focusing on the frantic, insistent rhythms and giving relatively little relaxation in the more lyrical moments.

At its first British performance, Elektra split the critics. There was thunderous applause from the audience, and violent disagreement amongst critics as to whether the music was a thing of brilliance or of ugliness. A century on, the reception from the audience was equally rapturous, but I'm not sure that the fundamental question has changed. I enjoyed much of Strauss's music, but the opera – at least in this performance – concentrates so heavily on the elements of stress and disturbance that I lost any of the sense of catharsis that I hope for in classical tragedy. In the end, I felt rather browbeaten: in the course of just under two hours of music, there was no redemption for anyone, just despair. Ultimately, in spite of the undeniable virtuosity and intensity of the performance, I found this Elektra a difficult opera to love.

Elektra, at Royal Opera HouseDavid Karlin reviews Charles Edwards' production of Richard Strauss's Elektra at the Royal Opera3