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Christine Goerke [Photo by Christian Steiner courtesy of IMG Artists]
27 Oct 2012

A New Production of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The opening images of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in its new production at Lyric Opera of Chicago establish a tension persisting until the final chords of the score indeed signal a resolution of this familial tragedy.

A New Production of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Christine Goerke [Photo by Christian Steiner courtesy of IMG Artists]


Christine Goerke, in her debut with this company, delivered a relentless yet at the same time lyrical performance, one in which Elektra’s early delusions are transformed by the character’s determination to see her plan for revenge ultimately realized. Her sister Chrysothemis is sung by soprano Emily Magee, their mother Klytmämnestra by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, Orest by bass-baritone Alan Held, and Aegisth by tenor Roger Honeywell. Sir Andrew Davis conducts these performances which open Lyric Opera’s fifty-eighth season.

At the sound of the distinctive opening chords the stage depicts a servants’ courtyard at center with, at left, a stairwell leading up to a stone edifice tilted menacingly. The doorway at the top of the stairwell emits a reddish glow. During the opening dialogue of the maids Elektra is visible from time to time caught up in gestures of emotional distress coupled with sounds akin to laughter. In her defense of Elektra’s nobility of spirit the fifth maid, sung and declaimed here with admirable attention to diction by Tracy Cantin, communicates further the tension that accompanies Elektra’s dilemma. Once the maids have retreated indoors Elektra occupies the stage alone and delivers her opening monologue. From the start Ms. Goerke uses her dramatic and vocal powers to portray a character obsessed with the dimensions of past injustice and future vengeance. Goerke’s calls to her father Agamemnon, coupled with a narration of his slaughter, are delivered with an impressive and secure range. In her erratic memory this Elektra intones the dramatic low pitches of “Sie schlugen dich im Bade tot” [“They murdered you in the bath”] in flashes with tender appeals phrased piano for Agamemnon in spirit again to reveal himself [“Zeig dich deinem Kind” (“Appear before your child”)]. As the orchestra swells gradually toward the close of Elektra’s extended monologue Goerke’s voice rises in believable excitement at the thought of a triumphal dance. In her plan for sibling cooperation she envisions the “Purpurgezelte” [“pavilions of purple”] that will be erected upon the successful revenge taken for Agamemnon’s death. Here Goerke’s forte notes matched the orchestral power and were integrated into a seamless portrayal of distress and vision. The final appeal to “Agamemnon,” just as at the start of the scene, suggests here through audible symmetry a barely contained simmer of emotional fury which is still to be unleashed.

Grove_2_(Credit_Dario_Acosta).pngJill Grove [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]

At the entrance of Chrysothemis in the following scene Goerke injects a palpable scorn into her greeting, “Was willst du, Tochter meiner Mutter?” [“What do you seek, daughter of my mother?”]. In their interaction and frenzied discussion of Klytmämnestra’s plan to imprison Elektra, Ms. Magee creates an emotionally complex figure. Her Chrysothemis attempts to warn Elektra yet also unleashes lyrical pleas to be allowed to live as a woman and to ignore the past. Once her feelings become charged to the point of declaring, “Viel lieber tot als leben und nicht leben,” [“So much better to be dead rather than to live and not live”], Magee’s yearning vocal line rises exquisitely in contrast to Elektra’s present starkness.

In the following scene Chrysothemis runs off to allow the inevitable confrontation between Klytmämnestra and Elektra. Jill Grove shows herself to be an equal partner in this vocal and dramatic confrontation, as her Klytmämnestra derides the “paralysis” [“gelähmt sein”] of her own strength when confronted by her daughter. In her address to Elektra the rising notes on “Habt ihr gehört? Habt ihr verstanden?” [“Did you hear? Did you understand?”] flow into a solid and chilling contralto pitch on “Ich will nicht mehr hören” [“I do not wish to hear any more”], both establishing the dread that she herself feels and can likewise inspire in others. The revelation that a sacrifice must be made to halt Klytmämnestra’s nightmares leads to Elektra’s triumphant announcement that the Queen herself must die as this “Opfer.” Grove uses appropriately melodramatic gestures to register the Queen’s horror until a servant provides her with the information that her feared son Orest has died before returning to the court. As she regains her composure Grove’s Klytmämnestra retreats with her retinue while delivering exultant cries of relief.

When Chrysothemis announces this very information to Elektra in their following exchange Goerke’s repetition of “Es ist nicht wahr” [“It is not true”] communicates her frustration in acidic tones. Elektra reveals to Chrysothemis that she has hidden the axe used in Agamemnon’s murder and the sisters must now wield it in lieu of Orest. The accompanying duet between Goerke and Magee stands out as a lyrical showpiece of this production as their voices blend and move apart in rhythmic succession. At the ultimate refusal of Chrysothemis to participate in the vengeance and her flight into the house, Elektra is left in grim resolve to dig for the buried axe herself.

As Elektra continues to search for the hidden weapon, a shadow appears on the back and side walls of the stage. The stranger [“Was willst du, fremder Mensch?” (“What do you seek, stranger?”)] identifies himself as a former companion of Orest who has come to deliver personally the news of his death to the Queen. In the scene of recognition Orest is able first to appreciate the identity of his sister through conversation despite her degraded state. Mr. Held portrays the stranger convincingly with questioning tones of respect, until the moment of recognition when his resonant voice blooms into the role of the heroic brother with a determined mission. In like manner, Goerke’s dramatic cry of recognition at the identification of her brother is softened as she sings piano with distended notes of relief and love. Despite their ecstatic reunion they are reminded of the task as Orest enters the palace. Only Elektra’s despair at having forgotten to provide Orest with the axe breaks the awful tension sustained in the orchestral accompaniment. The screams of Klytmämnestra are followed soon by the arrival in the courtyard of a drunken Aegisth. Elektra assures him passage into the house and to the same fate as that met by her mother. At the appearance of Chrysothemis in the courtyard and her joyous declaration of “Gut sind die Götter” [“The gods are benevolent”], Elektra begins her dance of celebration predicted earlier in her dramatic monologue. The continued emotional strain has, however, snapped and Elektra falls down lifeless to the horror of her sister. The final cries by Chrysothemis of “Orest!” bring about the crashing chords of resolution. The production of Elektra by Lyric Opera of Chicago with its superb cast as well as musical leadership by Sir Andrew Davis will remain as a testament to the innovation and greatness of Strauss’s music.

Salvatore Calomino

Click here for cast and production information.

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