Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017

Classic dysfunction on the opera stage


Christine Goerke stars in the title role of Strauss "Elektra" for San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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"Elektra" by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal opened recently as the second presentation in San Francisco Opera's fall season. Like the successful first-night gala "Turandot," the title character is a princess with murder on her mind. But to put it mildly, there is no happy ending, and this one-act tragedy won't get anyone in the mood for an afterparty. Instead it sends audiences out awestruck, discussing the sensational production by original director Keith Warner and revival director Anja Kuehnhold (both making their SFO debuts), and marveling at the trio of magnificent female performances that dominate the War Memorial stage.

The co-production of SFO, Prague National Theatre, and Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe is set in an antiquities exhibit in a modern museum, cleverly facilitating time-travel between the ages, and allowing some fascinating psychological cross-references. Mythic Elektra (the libretto is based on Sophocles) has been driven to the verge of madness by the violence of her mother Klytemnestra and Aegisth (bloody mama's lover) against her father Agamemnon (not exactly blameless himself). In Warner's concept, contemporary Elektra is an agitated young woman who hides out in a museum overnight to relive the chilling events that will end in a bloodbath and destroy a monumentally dysfunctional family.

Violence begets violence, and perverse morality leads to actions demanding impossible responses. Is vengeance righteous or self-defeating? Can murder ever be justified? By the time this mesmerizing one-hour-and-45-minute (without intermission) journey is over, we have faced such conundrums, and if the answers are still nebulous, we have observed some potent arguments.

A scene from San Francisco Opera's production of Strauss "Elektra" with Nicole Birkland (Third Maidservant), Sarah Cambidge (Fourth Maidservant), Alexandra Loutsion (Overseer), Rhoslyn Jones (Fifth Maidservant), and Jill Grove (First Maidservant). Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It has been 20 years since the morbidly fixated daddy's girl last plotted her mother's demise at SFO, and there are good reasons why Strauss' early-20th-century masterpiece is infrequently revived. There have been some legendary singers and conductors in fabulous productions over the years, but the huge demands of the composer are not easily met. The orchestra is expanded to 95, and personnel numbers 16 principals, 47 offstage choristers, and 19 supernumeraries. The two sopranos and mezzo-soprano who sing Strauss' grueling monologues must possess not only power, but also lustrous range. Smaller roles should be convincingly cast, too, and the leading male, Elektra's avenging brother Orest, must display imposing strength to be credible.

Scenic design and costumes shouldn't detract from the intensity of the play. Any opera company that can succeed in all departments achieves something of a miracle. Everyone can now exhale. "Elektra" 2017 is a towering success that eclipses every other show in town, at least until the end of the run. It isn't for the faint of heart, but opera-lovers will be talking about it for years.

The ingenious set by Boris Kudlicka, excellent lighting by John Bishop, effective costumes by Kaspar Glarner, and striking videos by Bartek Macias frame the action perfectly. All are new to SFO, and they realize Warner's and Kuehnhold's vision with an almost cinematic fluidity. Good as the physical production is, it would probably work on a bare stage with work lights, the musical values are that exceptional.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nanasi (another SFO debut) took the podium previously held by such greats as Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti. His grasp of the symphonic arc of the score seduces as it propels, and dissonant explosions were overwhelming in their theatrical force. The young conductor was general music director of the Komische Oper Berlin from 2012-17. We hope his many international assignments won't prevent a quick return.

The pivotal role of Orest was richly embodied by Louisiana bass-baritone Alfred Walker (SFO debut). His multi-dimensional performance suited the intensity of his colleagues, and he managed to sound beautifully musical at vocally stressful moments.

After making his SFO debut as Emperor Altoum in "Turandot," tenor Robert Brubaker plays the heinous Aegisth as a scary and scared snake of a man. His murder scene was horrific.

As the equally venomous mother Klytemnestra, Merola Opera Program alumna Michaela Martens looked and acted like middle-aged Liz Taylor on a bender. Her mezzo-soprano range is expressive, and her acting lends surprising sympathy to the character. Her punishment was inevitable, but she made it even more ghastly by showing her human side.

Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka portrayed Elektra's softer sister Chrysothemis with a heartbreaking combination of timidity and dejection. Wearing her doll-like pink gown and yearning for a normal life, her pure, sweet tone was strong enough to be heard over the gigantic orchestra and still convey subtle emotion.

The crowning triumph of an unforgettable production is dramatic soprano Christine Goerke's embodiment of the title role. How she could sound so tonally gorgeous at every turn while careening about the stage in fits of pitiable despair and anger ought to be taught in a master class. Putting her in the ranks of iconic singers like Inge Borkh, Gwyneth Jones, or yes, even Birgit Nilsson isn't a stretch. Witnesses to Goerke's stunning Elektra will feel confident knowing they have been present at the radiant making of a star.


"Elektra" continues in repertory through Sept. 27.


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