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Nina Stemme as Elektra [Photo © Cory Weaver]
26 Feb 2019

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Nina Stemme as Elektra [Photo © Cory Weaver]

 

In the title role of Elektra Nina Stemme’s multi-faceted portrayal commands attention, even during moments of silence or merely by an implied presence. Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis is sung with wrenching urgency by Elza Van Den Heever. Their brother Orest, as portrayed by Iain Patterson, is an emotionally committed figure whose heroic stature emerges in response to requisite action. Klytämnestra and Aegisth are performed by Michaela Martens and Robert Brubaker. Donald Runnicles conducts with masterful control the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Mme. Stemme and Messrs. Patterson, Brubaker, and Runnicles make their Lyric Opera of Chicago debuts in these performances.

 

Despite the protagonist’s absence in the initial scene, her essence pervades the steps of the palace. In answer to the question, “Wo bleibt Elektra?” (“Where is Elektra?”), the orchestra supplies a response: Runnicles elicits a palette of darting colors and fractured chords from the Lyric Opera Orchestra as if to suggest the patterns that have altered any sense of Elektra’s equilibrium. Once she appears and commences her monologue, Stemme’s Elektra wavers between controlled reflection, expressed piano, and flights of hysterical determination delivered with piercing top notes. The horror of her father’s murder and the subsequent transformation of the royal linger here in cries of anger yet also in shudders of repulsion. This trajectory of identification with Elektra’s persona grows only deeper throughout the evolution of Stemme’s performance.

Vital to this production, and in the spirit of Strauss’s conception, is Elektra’s interactions with others – both in and beyond her immediate family. The hesitant notes expressed by Van Den Heever’s entrance prompt Elektra to dwell on the potential malleability of her sister in securing an ally. The voices of both sopranos mingle, at rimes, in lyrical union until the failure of any cooperation becomes clear to the initiator of vengeful plans. Stemme’s subsequent confrontation with Klytämnestra enhances the tensions between two figures neither of whom will yield her ground. Martens does not rely on caricature to define the self-contained cause of Elektra’s anguish. Instead, she faces her daughter with the attempt at composure while inadvertently succumbing to glances of apprehension. Martens’s departure reflects a forced attitude of dignity since he has stared into the eyes of gleaming justice. Elektra’s encounter with Orest and the ultimate realization of her plan shows the complexity of Stemme’s approach reminiscent of the earlier monologue. She is at first cautious, then peals of controlled emotional relief sweep over the Grecian princess. After the moving scene of recognition, there is still work to be done. Patterson is especially effective as Orest: a growing resonance pulses in his voice as he nears the moment of revealing his identity. Once Elektra sends him into the palace, Stemme’s portrayal begins a final transformation. Her frantic search for the forgotten axe sways into the triumphant cry of “Triff noch einmal!” (“Strike once more!”) as Klytämnestra ‘s shrieks resound from within the palace. In a final semblance of control the daughter of Agamemnon leads Aegisth to his punishment when he comes tripping along in a daze of confusion. Stemme’s play of gentility here costs her final shred of stability. When she initiates her dance in this production Stemme appears in an apotheosis of light, so different from the grey and dull tones of the struggles highlighted earlier in this production. As she falls lifeless, the light is extinguished, her task is done, the surviving siblings must persevere in her spirit.

Salvatore Calomino

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