If you love Wagner’s Ring Cycle, then you should run right down to the Lyric Opera to see their new production of Elektra. This is Richard Strauss, not Wagner, but don’t expect anything resembling a melody or the collaborative multi-layered stylings of his Rosenkavalier. It is nearly two solid hours, with no break, of people singing very powerfully all the time. Like Wagner, most of the good melody bits are played in the orchestra and the singers are performing what are essentially elaborate, vocal firework displays on top. The solo singing is incredible but goes on rather too long. It’s really when characters are interacting that the vocal part of the music gets really interesting. Otherwise, it could almost be range exercises.
It’s one of those operas where the orchestra is having so much fun with their much better part than what the singers get to do, that they sometimes get carried away and are a trifle overpowering. Strauss’ instructions were to play the music “like a fairy tale” and the Lyric’s Orchestra sometimes is getting a little more like John Phillip Sousa in this, but still don’t manage to drown out the spectacular performances happening on the stage.
This is a woman’s opera. Most of the major characters and most of the side characters are female and this brilliant female cast is riveting from the moment the women playing the maids step on stage to set the mood of the piece. There’s not a weak singer or actor among them. From large to small role, everyone is in it full-tilt from beginning to end. And it’s a marathon performance nearly two hours with no breaks.
The cast assembled at the Lyric handle all the vocal pyrotechnics Strauss throws at them. You can see why Nina Stemme gets hired to play Elektra again and again. Elektra is mostly crazy and despairing and you both hear it in her voice as she rants and raves outside the gates of Mycenae, where her mother Klytemnaestra has murdered her father Agamemnon and usurped his throne, where she now rules along with her lover Aegisth. The maids taunt Elektra and she vows revenge on her mother and her mother’s lover in her Father’s name.
Her sister Chrysothemis, played by the exceptional Elza Van Den Heever, comes to warn Elektra that their mother has had bad dreams and is planning to imprison her. She begs Elektra to run away and expresses her own wish for a normal life and children. Van Den Heever is luminous here and is a wonderful foil for Stemme’s fierce Elektra. It was hard to decide who you liked better and the answer was that you like them both equally. Klytemnaestra approaches and Chrysothemis runs off to hide.
Just when you think you’ve seen all the powerhouse singing from women in this opera, Michaela Martens shows up as Klytemnaestra and has an amazing scene with Elektra, where Elektra promises to tell her how to cure her bad dreams. It’s to sacrifice the right person, of course. And that person would be Klytemnaestra.
Just as Elektra has shaken her mother to the core, someone arrives with news that puts Klytemnaestra in a good mood and she returns to the palace. Martens is also all that and a bag of amazing vocal prowess. And her supporting cast of maids and sycophants do a superb job with their smaller roles as well.
Chrysothemis returns and tells Elektra that Klytemnaestra was happy because their brother Oreste has died. Messengers had arrived at the city with the news. Elektra tells Chrysothemis she’s kept the axe Klytemnaestra used to murder their father and that the two of them must use it to avenge him, now that their brother cannot. Gentle Chrysothemis has no heart for murder and runs away. Elektra vows to take the axe and give her mother 40 whacks.
A stranger arrives, he’s the messenger with the news of Oreste’s death. Elektra sings wildly about her grief and reveals her identity. Then the messenger reveals himself as Oreste. He goes into the palace and begins killing everyone.
Klytemnaestra’s lover Aegisth returns to the palace. Elektra is strangely nice to him, but he goes inside the palace where Oreste kills him. She dances in victory and passes out. Chrysothemis rushes to the palace door and calls out for her brother and the opera ends.
It’s a very familiar Greek myth, but for some reason, its setting is not Greek at all. John Macfarlane has done both the sets and costumes and while they work together, I find them sort of mystifying. The set has been designed to look like a crooked ruin where a bunch of slate tiles have fallen off the roof. It allows for some very dramatic lighting effects and interesting shadows to be thrown, but it makes no sense. Perhaps the crookedness is meant to symbolize the corruption of usurpation. But mostly it’s just weird. And it doesn’t look like Mycenae at all. It’s just a ruin and could be anywhere. At the end, when Oreste is doing the murders, a river of blood runs down the stairs, which is really cool. Elektra rubs it all over herself and Chrysothemis walks in it. I would hate to be handling the laundering of the costumes for this.
Because she is sad, Elektra spends the entire opera in what looks a lot like a gray bathrobe. Gray is the color of opera sadness, I guess. I do not understand how it’s supposed to reflect Homeric Greece or mythology of any kind.
The other costumes are even weirder. They seem to be inspired by Minoan gowns only everybody had shaved heads a for some reason. And the elaborate patterning of the clothing was absent. It was sort of like some weird combo of Minos and 1980s Goth. They are fabulous, but I’m not certain what they’re attempting to convey.
I have to say I admired this production far more than I actually enjoyed it. I am one of those people who needs some sort of melodic structure to hang my hat on and this severely lacks it, like much contemporary opera. But if you don’t mind that and want to see a bunch of supremely awesome women sing powerfully, this could be a good fit for you. Powerful it certainly is in every respect. It plays through February 22.
Tickets available here.
Photography by Cory Weaver.