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12.5.08

Elektra: "The Music Comes from Me"

Susan Bullock as Elektra, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
Susan Bullock as Elektra, Washington National Opera, 2008
(photo by Karin Cooper)
Washington National Opera opened its final production of the season on Saturday night, Richard Strauss's 1909 opera Elektra. This opera and its sister from four years earlier, Salome, are in a sense extensions of the verismo style, just with much better orchestral scores and less vulgar melodies. Both one-act operas take ancient stories, from the Bible or Greek mythology, and shockingly refract them through the lens of modern psychology. Carl Jung used the story of Electra, of course, to describe the female counterpart of Freud's Oedipus complex, just a few years after the premiere of Strauss's opera. Hugo von Hoffmansthal's libretto for Elektra (in English translation), a distinct improvement over Strauss's adaptation of Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of Oscar Wilde's play in Salome, leaves open many possible motivations for Elektra's unhinged rage toward her mother, none of them pleasant to contemplate.

Elektra has been abandoned in the house of Agamemnon, who was murdered upon his return from the Trojan War by his wife and her lover. She plots her revenge for her father's murder, even burying the axe used to kill him, in the hope that she and her brother, Orest, can use it to slay Klytemnästra. This is not the first misfortune to befall the doomed House of Atreus, and it will not be the last. Why is Elektra so devoted to her father, who slew another of his daughters, Iphigenia, to appease Artemis and grant strong winds for the voyage to Troy?

Christine Goerke (Chrysothemis) in Elektra, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
Christine Goerke (Chrysothemis) in Elektra, Washington National Opera, 2008
(photo by Karin Cooper)
Elijah Moshinksy's production, revived from the WNO's last staging of Elektra in 1997, attempts to offer some answers. As directed this time around by David Kneuss, both Klytemnästra and Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister, are costumed in gowns and jewelry (costumes by Robert Israel). Elektra's more masculine hair and costumes, a sort of military jacket and pants, play with the dialogue in Elektra and Chrysothemis's duet. After the sisters discuss the latter's femininity and desire to be married and have children, Elektra kisses Chrysothemis forcefully. The words associated by Freud with the Elektra complex, penis envy, which are best avoided in conversation these days, come to mind when we see her wielding that axe, too.

It is hard to tell where the house of Agamemnon is located in this modern updating. The pop art, pastel colors and lighting, and angular architecture evoke at times an art gallery, chic department store, or a modern architect-designed house (sets by Robert Israel, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin). Aegisth is costumed in military dress uniform, but Klytemnästra is attended not by maids, but by suited secretaries with official badges. They spend much of the opening scene destroying boxes full of documents. Much of the libretto's specific military language of swords, horses, and chariots makes updating the setting awkward, but this staging makes sense somehow, in a murky, psychological way.

Susan Bullock as Elektra, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
Susan Bullock as Elektra, Washington National Opera, 2008
(photo by Karin Cooper)
The singing ranges from good to excellent, with soprano Christine Goerke standing out among the leads as an exceptionally opulent Chrysothemis. Her voice ranged from a coffee-rich bottom to a soaring top, with enough squillo to shake the rafters. She also towered in stature over Susan Bullock's Elektra, which was serviceable but in need of more wattage and occasionally ragged and shrill (by comparison to, say, Éva Marton, who sang the role last time around). Bullock also seemed much less comfortable on stage, especially the ridiculous dancing she is called upon to do in exultation at the thought of her mother's murder by her brother. Unlike the original myth, von Hoffmansthal and Strauss have their Elektra die at the moment of her greatest triumph, recalling the end of Salome. Elektra's dance is one of the most difficult challenges of the opera, how to make it look crazy without looking dumb. The libretto calls the dance "nameless" and "creepy" (unheimlich), comparing it to the mad fury of the Maenads. It should probably not look like Elaine on Seinfeld ("like a full-body dry heave set to music"), although Elektra's bad dancing may be related to the swigs she repeatedly took from a flask throughout the opera.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, 'Elektra': Vocal, Not Visual, Power Surges (Washington Post, May 12)

T. L. Ponick, Highly charged version by WNO (Washington Times, May 12)
Irina Mishura's Klytemnästra was powerful and demented, and her horrible mocking laugh curdled my blood. Daniel Sumegi was a stentorian Orest, directed mostly to stand like a statue, with a swallowed but potent style of vocal production. Among the supporting cast, Vivian Tierney's cigar-smoking overseer was particularly impressive, again bringing to the fore the confusion of masculine and feminine in this production. Best representing the maidservants, most of whom were sung by members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, was Aundi Marie Moore who had a dramatic turn as the fifth maidservant, the one who tries to defend Elektra. Conductor Heinz Fricke gave an intensely close reading of the score, distinguished especially by its exploitation of wild colors and triumphant and sneering brass. There were also warm solo strings in one of the opera's few truly beautiful passages, when Elektra realizes that Orest is not dead and has come back to kill their mother.

The remaining performances of Elektra, highly recommended for lovers of modern opera, are scheduled from tomorrow night (May 13, 7:30 pm) through May 27.

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