By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
Richard Strauss’s Elektra is one of the finest operas of the 20th century, but it is also an opera that lives or dies on the strength of the title role. Which is one of the reasons the current production at the Canadian Opera Company is a must-see.
Christine Goerke owns this role. There’s a reason she has been acclaimed as the world’s leading performer of Elektra – and as perhaps the finest dramatic soprano of her generation. It’s not just her tremendous voice, although that is certainly reason enough to come and hear her. From towering crescendos to tender moments of delicacy, Goerke’s performance thrills.
But Elektra is also a dramatic role, and it requires a singer who can act, taking her character from howling despair to frightening stillness to obsessed mania, with many stops in between. Goerke delivers the entire package in a mesmerizing performance that drives this fascinating opera. It is also a feat of endurance: the opera runs 100 minutes in a single act, and Elektra is on stage the entire time.
Written in 1909, Elektrais based on the Greek tragedy by Sophocles. But while the original told a sweeping political tale, the version crafted by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and composer Richard Strauss focuses almost entirely on the inner turmoil of one woman.
Elektra Seeks Revenge
Elektra’s father, Agamemnon, is dead, bludgeoned to death in his bath by his wife, Klytaemnestra, and her lover Aegisth. The murder and all its bloody, axe-driven details haunt Elektra, who now lives only to exact revenge on the murderous couple.
Strauss’s modernist score is a textbook in psychological exploration, the oftimes dissonant music conveying Elektra’s deeply damaged psyche and emotional turmoil. Audience and singer alike are washed along on waves of relentless music, tossed by its power as it drives toward an inescapable and deadly conclusion.
Klytaemnestra is performed beautifully by Susan Bullock, who herself sang the title role in 2007, when the COC last presented this Elektra. The scenes between Klytaemnestra and Elektra are particularly moving, as paranoid mother and vengeful daughter verbally duel, dancing between profound pain, towering rage, even hints of tenderness, and all the other emotional layers that exist in this most intensely dysfunctional of parent-child relationships.
Erin Wall is equally brilliant as Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis. She is a delight to watch and to hear as she pleads with her sister to just accept the new regime, lamenting that all she wishes is to forget the trauma they have endured, settle down, and have children.
The male characters in this tale are largely on the sidelines as the women do battle, but the men in this cast make a satisfying meal from what Strauss has given them. Wilhelm Schwinghammer is fantastic in the role of Orest, Elektra’s brother – the power and timbre of his voice are delicious. Tenor Owen McCausland adds another high note to his very successful COC season in the role of the Young Servant, and Michael Schade is a treat as Aegisth.
Songs of Praise
It’s rare to see a production in which every element works together as perfectly as they do here. Derek McLane’s set and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design brilliantly capture Elektra’s psychological state, a mindset in which everything has come askew and all is bathed in shades of blood.
The enormous orchestra – more than 100 players under the baton of Johannes Debus – is perfect, and perfectly balanced, never overpowering the singers as would be easy for a band of this size. Even the Surtitles are excellent, poetic translations of the text by Gunta Dreifelds that don’t just explain the drama but enhance it.
Near the climax of the tale, as a vengeful slaughter takes place offstage, the chorus – tucked away somewhere at the back of an upper balcony – sings joyful praises that come cascading down on the audience. It is a fitting moment to enjoy near the end of this production, a sublime meeting of composition, staging and performance.
Elektra runs until February 22 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. If you are in Toronto, this production is highly recommended.
Andrew Wagner-Chazalon has been writing professionally for several decades. He has lived in the UK, Australia and Canada, and currently enjoys luxurious things in Muskoka, a region the New York Times calls “the Hamptons of the North.”