Revenge is sweet and thrilling in Lyric Opera’s magnificent “Elektra”

February 05, 2019
Nina Stemme sings the title role in Strauss's "Elektra" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Nina Stemme sings the title role in Strauss’s “Elektra” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

And you think your family is screwed up.

Elektra is an outcast, disowned by her decadent mother, the queen Klytämnestra who has murdered her father (aided by her concubine, the cross-dressing Aegisth). Elektra vows vengeance for the murder and tries unsuccessfully to enlist her timid sister Chrysothemis. Meanwhile, her long-lost brother Orest, rumored to be dead, may be the stranger who has returned to Argos to exact his own vengeance.

Richard Strauss’s Elektra returned to the Lyric Opera stage Saturday night in a revival of the David McVicar production that debuted in 2012. The show went on despite sizeable potential hurdles: cancellation of the final dress rehearsal due to last week’s polar vortex and a principal singer suffering a stage injury.

Yet the opening performance was, well, electrifying—an improvement in every way upon the intermittent voltage of the Elektra performances of seven years ago, and sealed by the magnificent playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Donald Runnicles in his belated company debut.

Even coming right after his Salome, Strauss’s Elektra shocked audiences at its 1909 premiere. As much as they were disconcerted by the lurid scenario and almost unrelieved bleakness of the story— Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto is replete with images of decay, rotting flesh and putrefaction— it was the uncompromising modernism of the music that discombobulated listeners. Scored for over a hundred musicians (97 in the Lyric pit), Strauss’s relentlessly chromatic score is jarring even today in its massive power and shape-shifting tonality, the composer venturing into regions of dissonance and atonality. Strauss himself seemed unsettled by his creation, and soon abandoned this musical path, retreating into the more conventional comedy and Classical-Mozartian pastiche of Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. (Jan Sibelius’s almost contemporaneous Fourth Symphony had a similar effect on the Finnish composer who pulled back from the atonal abyss explored in that score.)

A curtain announcement Saturday night informed Lyric’s audience that Nina Stemme, singing the title role, had injured her knee in rehearsals and asked for their indulgence. The Swedish soprano did indeed seem to be limping and favoring one foot in the early going. But as the performance continued, the injury seemed to affect her less and less, and by the end of the evening Stemme didn’t seem to be suffering from any lack of mobility at all.

The role of Elektra is one of the titanic challenges in the soprano repertory, calling for vast power and flexibility throughout a dizzying range, from low chest voice to four high Cs and eight B flats.

Much anticipation awaited Stemme’s company debut as one of the reigning Strauss-Wagner sopranos of our day. Yet even with her indisposition, the soprano triumphed both vocally and dramatically. 

The petite Stemme is less physically strapping than most sopranos who sing this repertoire and it was striking to see such big tone and soaring top notes emerge from her with seeming effortlessness. The singer projected the wide range of music with an organic seamlessness and ease of production, nailing the eruptive top notes with power and precision, and lifting off in the fleeting lyrical sections as surely as any Marschallin.

Dramatically, Stemme was just as impressive, conveying the disheveled Elektra’s wrecked psyche and near-madness yet also finding a humanity and affecting vulnerability. Her Recognition Scene was primo, Stemme’s singing full-blooded yet intimate in its sensitivity, conveying Elektra’s deep love and affection for her returned brother. She even embraced her hated enemy Klytämnestra at one point—almost against her own will—as if searching for even a small degree of solace and nonexistent maternal love.

The sole indication of Stemme’s incapacity was the lack of Elektra’s danse de la mort at the opera’s conclusion. In fact, the only debit on the entire performance was the muddled staging of Elektra’s final moments. Whether due to Stemme’s disability, the cancelled final dress, or a combination of both, that coda needed a clearer and more dramatically satisfying payoff.

As Chrysothemis, Elektra’s relatively normal sister, Elsa van den Heever proved a vocally well-matched sibling for Stemme’s anti-heroine. The statuesque singer unleashed reams of luxuriant soprano tone in her big moments yet also conveyed the timid, fearful qualities of a woman longing to escape this royal house of horrors for the haven of a simple domestic life.

Even laboring under garish makeup and a padded fat suit, Michaela Martens managed to etch a more well-rounded characterization of Klytämnestra than many. The imperious evil of the villainess was there, but Martens also conveyed the guilt-wracked queen’s existential anguish and psychic desperation, the mezzo-soprano plumbing a wide array of dynamic nuance and coloring.

Sturdy of voice and bearing, baritone Iain Paterson proved an ideal Orest in his company debut—equally hellbent on avenging their father’s murder, yet loving and compassionate toward his mentally disturbed sister.

While his brief climatic appearance was somewhat over the top, Robert Brubaker possesses the high, fruity character tenor suitable for the high and fruity Aegisth. Among the smaller roles, first-year Ryan Opera Center member Eric Ferring served notice of an imposing youthful Heldentenor as the Young Servant. As Klytämnestra’s alter ego Maids, Lauren Decker, Mary Phillips, Krysty Swann, Alexandra LoBianco and Ann Toomey were aptly big of voice and visually disturbing.

Promoted from fight director to revival director, Nick Sandys handled his first Lyric stage assignment capably and resourcefully, apart from Elektra’s final moments cited above.

There remain elements of excess in the McVicar staging—not least the monstrous grotesquerie of Klytämnestra’s Hammer Films makeup and costuming as a repulsive would-be sybarite (echoed in the identical bald and sexless getups for her followers). Nor was anything gained by having a male mime in a thong cavorting about as part of her retinue of weirdos.

Yet for the most part, the production is striking and effective and serves Strauss’s opera well. John MacFarlane’s towering unit set remains a stunner with the ominously tilted walls, stony piles of rubble and disfigured Doric columns reflecting the tale’s Greek origins as well as the moral squalor that lies within. When the blood starts flowing down the high stone steps at the end of the evening it’s clear that Elektra, Chrysothemis and Orest have all been destroyed by their bloodlust for vengeance as surely as their vanquished victims.

Donald Runnicles. Photo: Opera News

As compelling as the stage action was, one was even more mesmerized by the sounds coming out of the pit. Donald Runnicles and the Lyric Opera Orchestra proved the unsung stars of this performance, the veteran Scottish conductor drawing playing of seismic force and remarkable color and versatility from the musicians.

Strauss’s big climaxes were spectacular, yet Runnicles’ natural balancing uncovered a myriad of scoring details—a darkly comic percussion rattle, the sickly lowing of low winds and brass, the whirring of violins ratcheting up the adrenalin and tension to the harrowing climax. More than anything, it was Runnicles’ idiomatic direction and the orchestra’s responsive playing that made the evening an unbroken 100-minute musical thrill ride.

Elektra runs through February 22.

Comments are closed.