New: A Breathtaking ELEKTRA at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday September 18, 2017 - 03:53:00 PM

Richard Strauss’ Elektra, based on the great Greek tragedy by Sophocles, is justly considered a milestone of modern music. Composed in 1908 and premiered in Dresden early in 1909, Elektra comes as close to atonality as Strauss ever ventured. (He once addressed a young composer of the atonal school with the question: “Why do you trouble to write atonally when you have talent?”) Whatever Strauss’s thoughts were regarding atonality, Elektra’s harsh dissonances and bold contrapuntal shifts of tonality were the perfect musical equivalents of the twisted, obsessive, single-minded repetitions of Elektra’s unhinged state of mind. Elektra, after all, had lived to see her father, Agamemnon, return from the Trojan War only to be brutally murdered in cold blood by his wife, Klytemnestra, and her illicit lover, Aegisthus. Then Elektra had found herself treated by her mother and Aegisthus as if she were a slave. She had thus fallen in her blaze of beautiful youth from revered daughter of a king to a ravaged, tattered servant in what used to be her household. She had also seen her brother Orestes flee the household in terror for his own life. Small wonder, therefore, that Elektra harbors great resentment towards her mother, especially, but also towards Aegisthus, the usurper. Small wonder, indeed, that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung considered that female children psychologically compete with their mothers for the affections of their fathers, a trait they called “the Electra complex.” (Electra is the English spelling, while Elektra is the German spelling used by Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl.) 

In San Francisco Opera’s current production of Strauss’s Elektra, originally directed by Keith Warner when it premiered in Prague in 2016, the drama is set in a museum dedicated to the ancient Greek tragedy. A woman comes to the museum and identifies with the figure of Elektra. Perhaps she, too, like Elektra, has been abused by her mother. Or perhaps she too, like the ancient Elektra, simply vies with her mother for the affections of her long-gone father. In any case, this woman so identifies with the ancient Elektra that she psychologically takes on her adopted ancestor’s identity, and she stays behind in the museum by hiding herself at its closing time, so that she may soak up the psychologically lurid elements of this ancient yet elemental tragic drama. This museum, it seems, is a museum of our collective psyche. 

In the role of Elektra, American soprano Christine Goerke is incandescent. She is onstage nearly all 100 minutes of this one-act opera staged without intermission. And she is obliged to sing very difficult music and do so over an orchestra of more than a hundred musicians. Goerke, who started out singing light, lyrical Mozart and Handel roles, suddenly found in her mid-thirties her voice shifting to a stronger, darker hue. Upset at this change, coming as it did at an earlier age than usually happens, Goerke thought of giving up singing. Happily, she decided to give her new, darker voice a try. Now, Goerke is a leading performer of Wagner heroines as well as roles such as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Strauss’ Elektra. With her performances of Strauss’ Elektra, Goerke joins a line of great Elektras that includes Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay, and Inge Borkh, Here in San Francisco, Goerke displayed a voice capable of producing earth-shattering, almost wordless howls and equally adroit at crooning poignantly lyrical longing. Her portrayal of Elektra’s surprise reunion with her brother Orestes (Orest in German) was full of tender lyricism that stood out in stark contrast to the harshness of her earlier psychologically harsh, musically shrieked harangues.  

In the role of Klytemnestra, American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, who sang here the role of Cassandre in our 2015 production of Les Troyens, used her voice beautifully to portray Klytemnestra’s guilt-ridden, nightmare-haunted torment. One senses in Martens’ portrayal of Klytemnestra that her character is one of those Bette Davis or Joan Crawford viragos who spew venom in their relations with their daughters. In Strauss’s Elektra, the mother-daughter confrontation becomes as creepy and venomous as, well, a scene from the movie Mommie Dearest. Klytemnestra even tries to wheedle her daughter into helping her cure the nightmares that plague her, but to no avail. Elektra simply twists the knife ever deeper into her mother’s tormented psyche, thereby also twisting the knife ever deeper into her own equally tormented psyche. In Klytemnestra and Elektra, mother and daughter are simply two sides of the same coin. 

In the role of Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was a breath of fresh air in this psychologically overwrought drama. Though urged by Elektra to join her sister in avenging their father’s murder, Chrysothemis insists on clinging to life and its hopes for a future. “I want to live and have children,” she sings, and in this plea we understand the positive side of her refusal to go along with the death-obsessed ravings of Elektra. Adrianne Pieczonka sang with clear, limpid tone and surprising strength, letting us see – and hear – that Chrysothemis is no weakling but in fact a strong, positive counterweight to the maniacally death-obsessed Elektra. 

As Orest, bass-baritone Alfred Walker made a strong company debut. His voice was full of dark foreboding. Though hiding his identity at first from Elektra, when he ultimately recognizes her as his now much-ravaged sister, his voice turned tender and solicitous. In the role of Aegisth (or Aegisthus), tenor Robert Brubaker was appropriately arrogant yet vulnerable. When set upon by Orest, he cries out for help. “Where are the servants to come to my aid?” he cries. The servants rejoice at his demise. When Chrysothemis asks Elektra if she hears the music being sung by the rejoicing servants at the death of Aegisth, Elektra answers, “Ob ich die Musik nicht höre? Sie kommt doch aus mir.” (“How could I not hear the music? It comes from me.”) As Carolyn Abbate remarks, “This aphorism could stand for operatic Expressionism tout court.” 

There are so many small roles in Elektra that it seems useless to cite all the singers in this review. The essence of this drama, of this tragedy, is in the character of Elektra herself, as well as in the characters of Klytemnestra and Chrysothemis. It is interesting that Richard Strauss’ music simultaneously asserts yet ironically undercuts each position staked out by his three female principals. Indeed, the essence of this musical tragedy resides in Strauss’ orchestra, which fills the role of a chorus in Greek tragedy, both mirroring Elektra’s maniacal obsessions and at the same time casting a judgment upon them. Led here by Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, the orchestra performed magnificently. All told, this Elektra rivals my previous favorite Elektra, one staged by the legendary Harry Kupfer that I saw at Berlin’s Komische Oper back in 2002. This San Francisco Opera Elektra utilised Keith Warner ‘s 2016 Prague staging as restaged by Anja Kühnhold. Costumes were by Caspar Glarner, sets were by Boris Kudlička, lighting was by John Bishop, and video footage was by Bartek Macias. 

Strauss’s Elektra continues for three more performances, September 19, 22, and 27. Don’t miss it! It is breathtaking!